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Covid Early Release Program Provides Unexpected Possibilities for Youthful Offenders in Indonesia

November 11, 2020

By Marisa Sarnilita Harahap

As Covid-19 cases in Indonesia soared in early spring, the government began releasing prisoners from the nation’s overcrowded prisons under a decree from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. The prisoner releases caused some public controversy, as opponents of the policy worried about the effect on public safety, but for the many children in Indonesian correctional facilities, the decree was crucial for their health and well-being. According to a policy paper from the Ministry of National Development Planning and PUSKAPA (the Center on Child Protection and Well-Being at Universitas Indonesia), 1,029 children had been released from incarceration across Indonesia by early May, while some 1,660 children remained in detention.

Child-protection laws in Indonesia are relatively strong, but their implementation is often weak, and children in correctional facilities are particularly vulnerable, from pretrial detention to sentencing. They are often socially isolated because of the cost of family visits, including “unofficial” visitor fees. Most have little or no access to educational programs and face the same conditions of poor hygiene, nutrition, and healthcare as adult inmates.

Children in a correctional facility in the province of  Bengkulu. For many young offenders, Covid early release has meant a chance for a new start.

Of 16 youth correctional facilities examined in a rapid assessment by our partner PKBI (the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association), nearly half were over capacity. The assessment found that conditions for incarcerated children were not conducive to optimal development, especially during Covid. They often live packed together, with eight to 10 in the same humid room of about nine square meters, with minimal lighting and ventilation, where safety measures like social distancing are impossible. Shared bathroom facilities are usually outside. The daily budget for food, healthcare, and other needs of incarcerated youth is around IDR 32,000—roughly three U.S. dollars per day. Children incarcerated under these conditions lack access to regular showers and even such essential pandemic fundamentals as regular handwashing with soap and water.

One of the most important aspects of child welfare and development is consistent and responsive adult attention to their needs and behavior. The PKBI rapid assessment found that more than 50 percent of children in correctional facilities had a history of poverty, abuse, and family neglect. In prison, these children often face bullying, threats, and other violence and aggression from guards and fellow inmates, behavior that has been shown to be deeply connected to the culture of these institutions.

On my first day in the cell, people immediately threatened me. They said something like, “If you want to be safe here, you must pay security money and follow the rules.” Otherwise I would be “rolled,” or tortured. Apparently, it’s a tradition that each new prisoner is extorted for money.

Former inmate of Palembang youth correctional facility

During the pandemic, visits to correctional facilities have been restricted, and this goes for youth inmates as well. At the same time, the number of correctional officers has been reduced. A lack of adult supervision and responsive care have left children more vulnerable to violence and ill treatment.

But there is an upside to Covid-19: the government’s early release program has provided an unexpected opportunity to reassess Indonesia’s juvenile justice system and reintegration practices. The government has adopted some new procedures and protocols as part of the early release program—conducting assessments and educating released inmates on must-follow rules and the penalties for infractions.

Through the Peduli program, a six-year-old program of the government of Indonesia managed by The Asia Foundation and supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Foundation is working with PKBI and its CSO partners to assist 16 correctional facilities to improve their implementation of the laws on juvenile justice and child protection. This includes improving education services, vocational training, healthcare, and psychosocial support; training wardens in children’s rights; and improving the government’s “assimilation and reintegration” program to smooth their return to their families and communities.

A social event for incarcerated youth at a correctional facility in Blitar, East Java.

PKBI helps to monitor children’s progress in the reintegration program. This monitoring is conducted both online, in “red zone” areas where the risk of coronavirus transmission is high, and in person, in “yellow zone” areas where the transmission risk is lower, through home visits that follow strict health protocols. This initiative has been praised by Bapas, the government agency responsible for children’s reintegration, which formerly performed only minimal monitoring such as checking program attendance lists without recording children’s condition or progress.

Peduli provides psychological counseling services throughout the reintegration process. Accompanied by their parents, children attend one-on-one sessions, usually once a week. Active participation in psychosocial, vocational, and life-skills programs can help children overcome the shock and stigma of incarceration. These activities help children to develop a healthy outlook and a sense of purpose and accomplishment that can stand between them and a return to delinquency or criminality.

My deepest gratitude and appreciation to PKBI and Bapas for helping me during assimilation by visiting my home, giving directions and explanations, and providing me with motivation. Before they came, I was confused and afraid to go back to the community because of the stigma. Now, I am getting support to develop my talents in cooking, and I have helped my neighbors to make and sell doughnuts. I hope to be better for everyone—friends and family—in the future.

— Former child inmate from Yogyakarta who received reintegration services during Covid-19.

In the end, it’s in everyone’s interest to provide the support and stability children need to return to life outside of prison. Former child inmates often do return to society, but without support, they are likely to end up back in prison or engage in self-destructive behaviors if there are no efforts to break the cycle of criminality or encourage them to make amends and rebuild their relationships.

Marisa Sarnilita Harahap is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Peduli program in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related topics: Covid-19, Urban Governance


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