Prison for wealthy Indonesians puts Club Fed to shame

Wealthy Indonesian convicts can purchase prison cell upgrades, an investigation at a women’s prison in Indonesia found last month. Amenities range from air conditioning to maid service.

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    In this Jan. 10 photo, Artalyta Suryani, a corruption convict serving a five year prison sentence for bribing an Indonesian prosecutor, sits in her well-appointed room during a raid by the anti-judicial mafia task force at Pondok Bambu prison in Jakarta, Indonesia.
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On one side of the prison cell stood a flat-screen TV. Children’s toys and leather sofas gave a homey feel to the quarters cooled by softly blowing air conditioning.

As anti-corruption inspectors from the president’s office toured Pondok Bambu women’s prison in Jakarta last month, they tallied at least three cells similarly decked out for their A-list occupants, mostly wealthy Indonesian businesspeople.

The crime that put them there in the first place? Bribery.

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While the days of the low security American "Club Feds" -- where so-called white collar criminals whiled away their sentences on tax-payer funded tennis courts -- are long gone, special treatment for those with money, whatever their crimes, remains the order of the day in Indonesia. Mohammed "Bob" Hasan, the golfing buddy of former President Suharto who amassed a fortune worth billions thanks to Suharto's patronage, spent tens of thousands of dollars improving the amenities at his prison after his corruption conviction following Suharto's downfall.

News of the five-star accommodations scandalized Indonesians and was a stark reminder of the graft and inequality that pervade the world’s third-largest democracy.

In Indonesia wealthy convicts can buy anything from room upgrades to sex workers to early release, advocates for prison reform say, while ordinary inmates endure cramped cells and physical abuse.

“If you have money, you get good services. If you don’t you get locked up for stealing cocoa pods,” says Chris Green, who is consulting for Indonesia’s Corrections Department on how to operate more efficiently. He was referring to recent cases in which Indonesians were locked up for several weeks for stealing handfuls of food.

The report on the women’s prison in late January dealt another blow to the government of President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono, which is already fighting to preserve the credibility of an anticorruption drive that was launched in recent years and has suffered a string of scandals.

Padding a meager income

One reason for prison corruption is low pay among law enforcers says Patra Zen, chairman of the Jakarta-based Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (known here as YLBH), which connects legal aid groups operating throughout the country. Most wardens and other high-ranking officials only make about $270 a month, compared with the $1,850 that state officials earn and Jakarta’s $115 minimum wage.

Another reason is the culture of corruption, says Ricky Gunawan, program director at the Community Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta (ILAF), which educates prisoners about their legal rights.

Even inmates' families end up paying a price. Despite placards outside prisons that warn visitors against giving bribes, most have to hand over $15 to $20 to get inside, Mr. Gunawan says.

According to Illian Deta Arta Sari, a researcher at Indonesia Corruption Watch, Cipinang maximum security prison in East Jakarta collected an estimated $2.1 million in bribes last year.

That number comes in against the $236 million that the national government budgeted in 2009 to finance the entire prison system. According to figures from the Department of Corrections, which show 140,000 prisoners housed in jails built for 88,000, the budget allocates about 90 cents a day for meals and even less for health care.

For the highest bidder, more space

Experts also blame overcrowding for a rise in corruption. Prisoners unable to pay law enforcers get the worst treatment says Nurkholis Hidayat, director of the Jakarta arm of the YLBH. “Nearly 85 percent of detainees report violence and severe abuse during their first few months of arrest.”

The money cycles through the prison system, he explains. Prisoners and their visitors pay bribes to block leaders, who then give a cut to officials. Block leaders often hold auctions where new detainees can bid for certain cells. Those without money are packed into 10- by 13-foot cells with up to five other inmates, while others receive upgrades depending on how much they are willing to pay.

Service varies by prison, according to descriptions from former inmates and people who have investigated prison operations. Wealthy inmates can hire people to deliver food and clean their cells. In Cipinang and Selemba high-security prisons, inmates can buy air conditioning and laptop computers.

Improving conditions for all

The director general of penitentiaries, Untung Sugiyono, argues that the findings at the women’s prison account for only 1 of 437 detention centers in the country and that subsequent investigations of other jails – which were announced beforehand – found no evidence of “exclusive” cells.

Justice and Human Right Minister Patrialis Akbar responded to the findings by dismissing the head of the women’s prison and promising to rotate prison officials to prevent them from building little “kingdoms.” The government also budgeted $109 million to improve decaying jails and construct new ones.

Mr. Zen says more legal protection is required as well. A 1995 law stipulates equal treatment for prisoners but needs to be revised to include a system for monitoring and recourse, he says.

In recent years, the correctional department has outsourced education, counseling, and medical services to nongovernmental organizations, but prison operations still remain largely off limits to outside observers.

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