Unraveling the Conundrum of Kerobokan Prison

By Laurane Marchive
The Bali Times

KEROBOKAN PRISON ~ Kerobokan Prison is one of those places everybody has heard of, and if you believe the rumors, drugs, violence and gangs are rife within the barbed wire-topped secured walls.

The arrest of the head of prison security and his subsequent jailing last year in the facility he worked in spotlighted drugs problems within the penitentiary.

Muhammad Sudrajat was arrested by undercover police with 0.2 grams of crystal methamphetamine and 50 rounds of ammunition after former detainees claimed he had been their dealer.

Just what is life like behind the prison walls, and beyond the rumors?

“There is nothing interesting happening here,” a member of the Australian “Bali Nine” drug smugglers told The Bali Times.

“Things have been really calm lately. It’s not really possible to go out; drugs are disappearing; and I’m not sure it’s even possible to sneak people inside anymore,” said the inmate, speaking on condition their name not be published.

For the swelling ranks of prisoners, the majority of whom are serving time for drug-related offenses, one of the hardest things to bear is the isolation and lack of anything to do.

“We are locked inside our cells from 5pm to 8am, and during the day we can watch movies and play games, like tennis, but we don’t work,” death-row prisoner Emmanuel O Ihejirika, 31, from Sierra Leone told The Times.

Only Indonesian prisoners are allowed to work and earn money, and are given rice-based dishes every day, while foreigners are provided with five slices of bread and a banana. If they can’t afford to buy more, the prison won’t feed them, they said.

It’s the same for medical care. Said one prisoner: “They put you in a room and they let you die, which is why I don’t even want to do any exercise.”

Another said: “Recently someone died in my cell, which makes a total of six in the last two years, and we don’t know why.”

O Ihejirika, who also has Nigerian citizenship, said his family does not know about his case, for fear it might traumatize them, especially his mother. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004 for smuggling 396.6 grams of heroin in 31 capsules in his stomach into Indonesia and upon appeal the punishment was upgraded to death.

He says he has little money and cannot afford basics like additional food without the help of friends like cellmate Scott Rush, who is also on death row.

Rush, one of the Bali Nine, was jailed for his part in attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin out of Bali in 2005, and has the same lawyer as O Ihejirika.

According to the Foreign Prisoner Support Service, a human rights group based in Australia, convicts at Kerobokan Prison require their own money for their upkeep – equivalent to the average monthly salary of a working Indonesian.

“A minimum equivalent of US$120 per month is needed to sustain the very basic needs of a prisoner in Kerobokan,” it says.

Some detainees say it used to be possible for prisoners with money or influence to take trips outside. In recent times the Australian media has picked up on Bali media reports of prisoners being spotted at entertainment venues in tourist areas, notably drug-runner Schapelle Corby, illicit outings that are strongly denied by the prison authorities.

Allegedly, members of the so-called “Laska band” could go out for weeks and come back as if nothing had happened. “They controlled the guards and the prison,” said a prisoner who asked to remain anonymous. He said now that members of the group had been separated and sent to different prisons, some degree of peace had returned.

But tension remains, and a man was recently stabbed inside the jail, ostensibly over a drug deal. According to inmates, guards found marijuana on him and after claiming it wasn’t his, he accused another prisoner, who retaliated.

Suicides seem to happen on a regular basis, and it is a high stress environment. The prison was built to hold around 400 people, but currently between 800 and 1,000 prisoners are living there.

There are plans, however, to move the entire facility out of Kerobokan, a busy commercial area in Kuta district, but thus far a suitable location and funding have not been found, a former head of the prison told The Times.

A visitor to the prison said, “A long time ago, when they took me inside, it was awful, dirty, horrible. I didn’t know how anybody could live there.”

O Ihejirika said, however, that the prison was no worse than any other. “I could live under any conditions, so this place doesn’t seem so bad to me,” said the man who was once a refugee in Pakistan.

Foreigners tend to be put in cells with one to three others, while as many as 15 locals bunk together in one room.

Prisoners talk about a place called “C2” block, where inmates are first sent when they enter Kerobokan Prison. There, there are no beds, and one bottle of water to wash with. If prisoners want to get out, they have to pay, and are forced to sleep on plastic bags on the floor if they do not, according to what prisoners said.

The tension at Kerobokan appears to be rooted mostly in the lack of outside contact and real life, common to prisons throughout the world. During the week, all morning and afternoon, the visiting hall is full of people seated on the floor or on pillows. They talk, smoke, eat, children run around and wives bring food for their husbands. It looks somewhat like a railway station, except for the guards making sure no one escapes.

The need for something equating a normal life is also manifested in prisoners’ maintaining of relationships, and keeping in touch with foreigners they barely know who send them food and clothes.

Being in prison makes it difficult to develop relationships, but they do happen, and Rush plans to marry an Australian woman who has been visiting him.

Elsewhere in the facility, it is not an uncommon sight to see couples having sex in public areas, including with members of the same sex.

For those who don’t want a relationship, there is a church, and some hope. And perhaps that is the last positive emotion when waiting on death row, not knowing if or when you will be executed.

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