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Indonesia Struggles to Revamp ‘Hell-Hole’ Bali Prison


The sound of male inmates singing a hymn of repentance as others play tennis in a lush garden would have you believe Indonesia’s most infamous prison has been radically transformed.

But those who spend time in Kerobokan prison on the holiday island of Bali say the jail is still a cesspool of bribery, drugs and clandestine sex, despite a management overhaul aimed at cleaning up its image.

“You can still get anything you want if you have the money,” an Australian prisoner siad outside the prison church. “Nothing’s really changed.”

New management was installed in February after the prison warden and Bali police commander were sacked following days of jail riots, triggered by a gang-war stabbing, further tarnishing the prison’s already gritty reputation.

Around 1,000 police were deployed, firing water canon and rubber bullets to contain the grossly overcrowded facility after the prison guards fled unable to control the mayhem.

Order has been restored, but last month two mysterious deaths were reported in the prison and volunteers who work with the inmates say drug use and bribery are still rampant.

“Inmates tell us of drug deals being done at church and on the tennis court, and guards are still taking money to allow sex in toilet cubicles,” Indonesian Prisoners Association chair Ida Ayu Made Gayatri said.

“We know that people are still throwing drugs over the prison walls and some are even coming through the front gate with staff.”

Like many prisons in Indonesia, Kerobokan struggles with space – it is three times over capacity, with 1,015 inmates, including 68 foreigners and nine children.

It has been home to Australian drug trafficker Schapelle Corby since 2004 and the Bali Nine – a group of Australians found at the island’s airport with heroin strapped to their bodies.

While the women sleep on mattresses brought in by an NGO in neat but cramped rooms that resemble university dorms, the men are packed tighter into larger cells, many sleeping up to 70 on a concrete floor with little room to stretch.

The new prison chief, I Gusti Ngurah Wiratna, is determined to strip Kerobokan of its reputation, which hit rock bottom in 2009 with the publication of “Hotel Kerobokan” by Australian author Kathryn Bonella.

She described the prison as a “hell-hole” where cash-rich inmates – thanks mostly to money brought in by visitors – enjoy a life of relative luxury beside their poor peers living in squalor.

The book portrayed the prison as Bali’s “drug hub,” describing paid-for sex parties, murders and suicide.

Wiratna’s first step in cleaning up the colossal mess at Kerobokan is the “zero rupiah” program to ensure prisoners cannot pay for special treatment and to curb the bribe culture that feeds hungry prison guards.

“This kind of violence happens because rival groups here form around money and they fight over payments,” Wiratna said, explaining that the bulk of the gang members have been moved to another facility.

“Bribes used to happen in the open. Visitors used to have to pay to come in and prisoners would pay guards to do activities that should be free. That’s all stopped now.”

But a foreign woman recently imprisoned, struggling to adjust to life inside, said she was unable to go to church until she paid the guards for a pass.

“I don’t have anything to do here. I’m trying to get a punching bag brought in just so I can exercise. I’m still waiting to be able to go to church,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

“I don’t know what to do here or how the system works.”

While money can still buy just about anything inside, prisoners in Block W, the women’s block, complain the usual cash flow has slowed since Wiratna took over.

“Things in Block W are okay, but the economy’s not great,” a 24-year-old Indonesian woman convicted for drug possession said.

The woman who washes fellow inmates’ and guards’ clothes in Block W for a Rp 10,000 to Rp 20,000 ($1-$2) said people had been short of cash recently.

Block W is indeed an economy – a dozen women in the kitchen were frying glutinous sesame balls while others sewed handbags they hoped to sell on the outside somehow – but it is one in which the guards retain the power and wealth.

“The women cooking in the kitchen are paid by the guards, who sell the food back to the prisoners for a profit,” another foreign woman convicted for drug possession said.

The prisoner holds up a plastic bag with a slice of bread, a banana and two pieces of papaya.

“That’s all foreigners get to eat each day. The kitchen is supposed to be ours, but the guards use it to make money. Any other food we want, we have to buy,” she said.

“In the end, no one starves, but you spend a lot of your time working out where to get money just to feed yourself.”

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