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Bali’s Hotel California is a jail

Bali’s notorious prison Kerobokan or Hotel K has prisoners of different nationalities. Only few manage to check out of this hellhole, where drugs, rape and instances of corruption are an everyday affair. Ex-Aussie journalist Kathryn Bonella spent several months in Indonesia to lay bare their stories

Melbourne resident Kathryn Bonella chanced upon Hotel K when she was producing a show for CBS News on Schapelle Corby, a 27-year-old Australian who was caught with 4.2 kg of marijuana at Bali’s Denpasar Airport in 2004. Corby was sentenced to 20 years in Hotel K, Indonesia’s most notorious prison that houses drug lords, rapists, and murderers from around the world.

Bonella produced the show, but decided to quit television soon after. By the end of 2005, she moved to Bali to co-author Corby’s autobiography (No More Tomorrows, 2006), visiting her twice a day over the following 11 months. Then, in January 2008, Bonella returned to Bali, this time to write about the prison.

What was the impetus to write about Hotel K? I’ve always had a passion for great human stories, and Schapelle’s story and those of other westerners locked inside Hotel K, were worth investing years of research and interviewing to turn them into a book. The stories I found were incredible, crazy, weird, berserk, sometimes funny and often heart wrenching

Imam Samudra used a laptop in his Hotel K cell to not only 
write his autobiography but also to recruit suicide bombers for 
the second Bali bombing in 2005 It was during the months of interviewing Schapelle that I saw the wild, crazy, violent and sex-crazed world inside Hotel K. Western and local inmates regularly came up to Schapelle and me for a chat, stoned, drunk or just wanting to stave off the interminable boredom that invades the psyche of every prisoner.

I was fascinated by how this sketchy little society operates, how those on death row or serving 20 years cope, how they make this place home because they have to, how they fill the tedious long hours.

Tell us about what you saw, who you met. I met Gordon Ramsay’s junkie brother, Ronnie, doing time for heroin possession; a king of Bali who did a week for stabbing to death his brother; most of the Bali Nine; several other international drug traffickers; and killers, gangsters and many others.

I saw and heard intriguing stories: sex nights, photos of hookers brought around by guards like menus, days out at the beach, cell upgrades including one that rivalled a 5-star hotel with a Bose surround sound system, a Plasma TV and an en suite bathroom, or others with a Jacuzzi or a meditation pond with a Buddha statue. Like any hotel, cash at Hotel K could buy perks.

Without money though, inmates often lived like animals, with up to 25 men crushed into the initiation cells for months and months with insufficient room to even lie down and only one squat toilet between all of them. At the back of the jail was a furniture factory that was a front for an ecstasy factory.

It’s nothing like what we expect of a prison, is it? Things that at first seemed totally surreal and unreal; like seeing sexual intercourse, prisoners doing drugs, and prisoners who were doormen escorting me out, soon became familiar. One Indonesian inmate, nicknamed Silver, doing time for murder, regularly walked me out to hail a taxi on the way back from the gym. 

As a journalist, I knew if I could get the walls to talk through the prisoners’ stories, it would make a fascinating book and possibly exposing the truth of this place might even do some good.

How did you choose whom to write about? For the main characters I selected foreigners, often inmates I’d met while writing Schapelle’s book. The foreigners in Hotel K were mostly highly-educated, and able to articulate in detail about life inside the jail. 

There was a luxury of riches to choose from, as every day in this place, something insane, violent or shocking goes on. So I selected the most compelling stories that also reflect the various areas of the jail from the guards, corruption, sex, and violence to the drug industry inside. 

All together I talked to about 100 prisoners and guards sometimes travelling to jails in far flung parts of Indonesia to interview ex-Kerobokan prisoners. Some of those I interviewed are now free, including a Balinese hit-man who hacked off a man’s head.

I also interviewed prison guards, including the security boss (second in charge). I met him many times for drinks or dinner so he could tell me stories — one night he even phoned a couple of Australian inmates in their cell and put me on to say ‘Hi’. It was indicative of how casually the guards collude with prisoners. I went through local newspaper archives to backup the stories I was told.

As a journalist, it must have been foremost on your mind to depict and not judge. However, were there instances where you felt your personal limits being tested?

To get the sort of intimate, graphic detail needed to paint a vivid picture of life inside the jail. I had to spend a lot of time gaining the trust of the main characters for them to open up. I spent a lot of time with heroin traffickers — including an Austrian guy who was once the top drug boss in Jakarta — drug mules, gangsters, and killers. 

Though, of course, I do not condone crime of any sort, I didn’t judge these inmates for their crimes and actually liked most of the main characters in the book, who were often funny, witty, intelligent and incredibly interesting. Somehow, even living in these hideous conditions, they were usually upbeat and bright, and told me funny stories.

Did you ever have a troublesome experience with any inmate?

Things felt a bit hot once, when I met a drug boss, an ex-hotel K inmate, in Jakarta. His former cell mate, who’d put me in touch with him, advised me against meeting him, wary that the capricious drug boss might try to plant drugs on me or kill me using an overdose, if he suspected that I was a police spy. I did feel a little anxious, but obviously, it went okay and he gave me compelling information.

What is the life like for women inmates? Uniquely, it’s a mixed-sex jail, but the women are treated like second class citizens. Unlike men, they are unable to walk around in the jail. 

While the men can fill their days playing tennis, cards, soccer or continuing their professions — such as drug dealing, gambling or security inside — there is little scope for the women. Many quickly form lesbian relationships, or have lovers among the male prisoners. Some female inmates also work: dealing drugs, or working as hookers, with guards serving as pimps.

During the day, they are only allowed out, to collect their mail or to go to church or the temple. The guards are worried the women will sexually excite the men; though sex between the prisoners is rampant. So women have little to do, and spend most of their time crammed like animals in the women’s section.

For information on the book, visit www.hotelkerobokan.com

Extract : Chapter 16, An Eye For An Eye Out of five major gangs in Bali, Laskar was the most violent. The up-market tourist areas of Seminyak and Legian were its turf. Laskar was in charge of security in all the nightclubs, bars and restaurants, also selling ecstasy in most of the major tourist clubs, such as Bounty, the Hard Rock Caf ©, Paddy’s and Double Six. Four or five Laskar members were security at each club, and had the ability to call on its five hundred or so members if a situation escalated.

It was a shock when the top bosses of Laskar, including number one Agung Aseng, were sent to jail. They normally had immunity, working with police to evade punishment.

Hotel K: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail 
by Kathryn Bonella published by Quercus and distributed by 
Penguin Books India is available at leading bookstores for Rs 499

Usually the Bali police tried not to disturb the Laskars. Here is how it works in (the) Balinese underworld; the gang kills someone, the police announce informally to the gang leaders that they have to surrender the person who killed.

Please make our job easy, the police say. The leadership of the gang will hold meetings to decide who will be sent to the police to confess as the killer. They will never send the actual killer because the actual killer is an asset to the gang. A killer will increase its reputation and power.

This is the story behind the story that never made it to the newspaper or (reached) the public. Denpasar Moon, supposedly a karaoke bar but it’s open until six in the morning, is right across the street from a military complex that oversees Bali.

The security of this Denpasar Moon is not by Laskar. On this night, there is a violent argument with one of the security and one of the guests. It turns out that the guest has a good relationship with Laskar, with Agung Aseng, the head of Laskar himself. He calls Agung Aseng.

The Laskars arrive in two open jeeps, carrying swords, spears, lances. And they attack Denpasar Moon security. One of the on-duty military men at the regional complex (First Corporal I Gusti Ketut) hears the commotion. He goes to check, he wants to know what is happening, he approaches Denpasar Moon, and is stabbed and killed by Agung Aseng and his men while he was trying to break up the fight.

I was there several hours after the murder of this military guy, and already several young soldiers were gathering and speaking about revenge. The commander of Bali military summoned all his officers and told them he will not tolerate any revenge, because the image of Indonesian military is still very low and they should not create an incident that will further tarnish that image.

But his subordinate, chief of the Denpasar military, was a very young, very tough, no-nonsense guy. He calls the chief of Denpasar police and says, ‘Do you have a suspect yet?’ Of course they didn’t have a suspect yet because they had to sort it out with the gang first.

The military knew Laskar did it; they knew Agung Aseng was there. So this young military guy informs the Denpasar police chief, ‘Okay the one who commit(s) the crime is Laskar and … the guy’s name who was involved in the attack is Agung Aseng. I expect all the suspects to be arrested within twenty-four hours; otherwise I and my men will arrest them. And if I do the arrest, you can be sure that none of them will be alive to stand trial’.

It was not an empty threat. A group of military soldiers in plain clothes was already surrounding Agung Aseng’s house under direct order from him.

The police chief knew the house was surrounded and called Agung Aseng, saying, ‘Please surrender’. 
Agung Aseng surrendered. The Denpasar police chief called the Denpasar military chief… ‘We’ve got the suspects’.

So, normally there is some arrangement with the gangs, but when you deal with an angry army guy, you don’t have any choice. Agung Aseng got three or four years. It’s common knowledge that each night he’s still able to leave the prison, stay at his house, or control his men who are working in the streets of Legian and Seminyak. 

Eight Laskars got sentenced. And, suddenly, when they went to jail, Laskar Bali owned the jail. I think most of the guards are frightened of the gang, afraid for their own lives and their families’ lives.
– Journalist Wayan Juniartha of the Jakarta Post

From the first day Agung Aseng entered Hotel K, he took over, strutting about while talking on a mobile phone, walking into the boss’s office, out the front door, doing whatever he liked. The guards knew the power of the Laskars and just stood back to let the gang take control.

I remember once I was at the front door and Agung Aseng came to the guards’ door and asked, ‘May I come in? May I come in?’ … He was supposed to be in jail. He’d been out for two days and came to spend the night in jail.

Nobody dares close Agung Aseng’s cell door. Every night he had a party, barbecue, smoke marijuana, supply whisky for the guards. Every night. Outside every block there is a small garden. After 5 pm everyone has to go inside the block and the block is locked. But not his. His was always open. And whoever he wants to come, he tells the guards, ‘Go and pick him up at his block’.
– Ruggiero (Inmate)

He brings a woman to his room; he brings his people, his friends from outside and inside. Free. No limits. Mostly, he went out to sleep at home. Every morning he would come back just to close the eyes of the government. In Kerobokan, everybody is working for Agung Aseng.
– Den (Inmate)

If the guards tried to impose authority, they were bashed. Trying to lock boss Agung Aseng in his cell one night caused a guard to be viciously beaten. Two other guards stood by watching, helplessly.

Assisting him would only have meant them being bashed too. Another guard was beaten up by an angry Laskar inmate for refusing to let him walk out the front door. The inmate was not punished.

The guards and their families lived under threat; all knew Laskar could mobilise its members with a phone call. Just as they did at nightclubs, a Laskar pack would descend on Hotel K to answer a call. Several times, dozens of Laskars turned up inside Hotel K to bare their teeth. A rumour that Agung and his men would be moved to a prison outside Bali brought more than twenty gangsters.

They were sitting on the lawn, drinking arak there to protest. The guards could not do anything. Maybe twenty, thirty people came. Sometimes they came to one block, they sit (on) the grass and drink arak and guards cannot speak, because how many people in Laskar — a thousand people. Guards don’t want to die.
– Thomas

Laskar was jail mafia, brutally enforcing its own laws, sometimes collaborating with the guards to bash inmates. If a prisoner was caught escaping, failing to pay drug bills or had committed atrocious crimes, the Laskars would take the Hotel K law into their own hands. During an afternoon visit, a Laskar member doing time for killing a man dragged a new inmate through the blue room and into the large office atrium. He forced the inmate to his knees and lifted his hand ready to crack him across the skull, then stopped.

He caught a glimpse of Schapelle and her visitor watching him through the door. He left the prisoner trembling on his knees and walked across to explain that the inmate was a paedophile. He was about to get his first prison bashing.

Laskar also did personal security jobs for prisoners. If someone had a phone, an MP3 player, cash, or anything else, stolen, they could pay Laskar to get it back. The Laskar enforcers were always keen to do a little business on the side. One westerner paid the gang to punish a new inmate who had ripped him off a year earlier. The new inmate had promised to use his court connections to get the westerner’s sentence cut on appeal. The westerner was desperate.

He paid him 175 million rupiah ($23,000), but his sentence was increased by two years. The local man had stolen the money. So when the new inmate was caught with hashish and put in Hotel K, he was a walking bulls eye. Several times the Laskars hurt him badly, trying to extract the stolen cash.

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