Jakarta prison riot highlights growing problems with overcrowding

Six people died during a recent prison riot in Jakarta. The number of prisoners in Indonesia continues to increase. The country does not have enough cells. Something has to give.


When prisoners rioted at the Mako Brimob facility, the result was deadly. Five policemen lost their lives, and one inmate died. Nobody remains in that section of the prison in Depok, near Jakarta. In the aftermath, the police moved the remaining residents to a high-security prison.

There are more than 240,000 prisoners in Jakarta. The country does not have enough prison cells for that many. Analysts predicted problems, including rioting and violence, due to overcrowding and prison policy. Must the city’s governor and the police now make significant changes to prevent repeats?

Source: World Prison Brief

The riot lasted for more than 36 hours before police took control

Several so-called Islamic State (IS) suspects and terrorists were inside the Depok prison. Those prisoners may have plotted the riot beforehand. Inmates escaped from their cells and grabbed weapons, including bombs. Then they turned on the correctional officers.

As the riot was underway, IS posted footage of the attack. Inmates slashed the throats of the police officers. The siege went on for 36 hours in total. In the end, all but 10 of the prisoners surrendered. The others only did so once police assaulted the compound from the outside.

IS claimed responsibility; the police now face criticism

IS was quick to claim responsibility for the attack. The police maintained the attack was not coordinated by IS but one that arose from a dispute over food. Prisoners began rioting following an argument over food. However, the prisoners did not riot just because of this.

The police were slow to reveal details of what had happened during the riot. However, they claim they followed international standard operating procedures. They claimed they were taking special measures because they were dealing with terrorists. However, Indonesian Police Watch described their behaviour as “not transparent” and “very odd”.

Such criticism is harmful to the police. Can the public trust the police to handle other major events? For them, with elections on the horizon, the riot has been a disaster. Security forces will now investigate their response. The police have since had to respond to further terrorist attacks.

Overcrowding in prisons is a huge problem, as is how the prison service handles inmates

Nevertheless, the police were not to blame for the disaster. There are too many prisoners for Indonesia and Jakarta’s prisons. The country has the capacity for 124,006 prisoners. There are not enough prison workers. Furthermore, putting terrorists and suspected terrorists in the same area always carries risks. Extreme views can flourish in such environments.

Some analysts went as far to say a riot such as this was inevitable. Researchers said conditions at the prison were a “disaster waiting to happen”. The prison itself was not up to the job. Designers did not intend for it to be a high-security centre for these types of inmates.

As the country does not have enough room for its convicts and prisoners, it leads to other problems. The thin resources available for the prisons must go further. With limited resources, conditions worsen. Dangerous inmates end up sharing cells. They should stay apart. Prisoners become unhappy and are more likely to fight against prison staff. The prisons are not strong enough to contain them.

Now is the time for a review of prison policy in Indonesia

What happens now? In the immediate aftermath, the prisoners moved to another prison. Workers will repair the facility. Families, friend and colleagues will mourn the dead.

In the longer term, it must be time for Indonesia’s politicians to take another look at their prison policy. This attack was not the first significant riot at an Indonesian prison. It was not even the first riot at Depok. It does not appear as if anybody heeded the warnings. Unless somebody acts, prisoners will continue to riot.

Some argue that Indonesia could take a more lenient approach. They encourage more community sentences instead of sending all convicts to prison. That is inappropriate for the type of prisoner who rioted in Depok. However, it would still lessen the strain on the prison service and reduce some of the risks.

Is it possible to ease the pressure on the prison service and keep Indonesia safe?

The challenge is keeping everybody safe while not overstretching the prison service. Currently, with limited resources and too many prisoners, that challenge seems impossible. However, prison numbers are unlikely to start falling. Therefore, politicians must consider how they assign resources. They must commit to building more secure prisons.

They should also explore other options. Where appropriate, they could limit custodial sentences. Better management of prisoners is essential. Those posing a threat to security should not have unlimited communication with others.

There is no immediate quick fix. Right now, it is impossible to ease the pressure on the prison service. The service is under more pressure while cells at Depok are unavailable. Even when Indonesia locks its terrorists up, they are still a danger to society.