The early release of incarcerated persons from overcrowded prisons should not only be done as a public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as a means to humanising the existing law, opined panellists in a webinar titled “Reducing Incarceration in the Time of COVID-19” on Thursday (14 May).
Even so, it will not be an easy feat to implement, as the public may harbour different views on the issue, said Campaign & Advocacy Officer at Indonesian Act for Justice (AKSI) Yohan Misero.
“The prisoner’s release has been heavily criticised by the general public. [There are] stigma and discrimination against prisoners,” said Mr Misero, who was one of the panellists in the webinar.
Previously it was reported that Indonesia had granted early release to over 38 thousand prisoners in April to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the archipelagic nation’s overcrowded prisons.
The country’s federal government plans to continue granting the release or parole to a total of 50,000 prisoners.
However, the measure was not welcomed by the public and even by the prisoners themselves.
Mr Misero said that the Ministry of Law was even sued by several civil society groups — whose members are legal activists — for deciding to release tens of thousands of prisoners.
While such groups raised concerns on the safety in their neighbourhood after a number of the prisoners released had gone on to re-offend, Misero posited that on a larger scale, the objection of the release of prisoners is rooted in stigma and discrimination.
Prison riots such as that in Tuminting Prison — one of Indonesia’s most crowded prisons, located in North Sulawesi province — have also contributed to the anxiety surrounding the release of prisoners during this period.
It was reported that the prisoners — mostly drug offenders — went on a rampage and had set fire to buildings as they were angry with the restrictions on family visits.
They were also envious over the news of certain prisoners being released early in the government’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
According to Mr Misero, a prisoner should speak up to be able to get an early release.
Unfortunately, there are cases where prisoners had instead opted to bribe prison officials to get an early release, he added.
Overcapacity of prisons should serve as an opportunity to reevaluate pre-trial detention and other punishment against nonviolent offenders
According to trends on incarceration based on data from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University, Indonesia ranked second in Southeast Asia in the list of the region’s most overcrowded prison capacity at 204.95 per cent overcapacity.
The list was topped by the Philippines, with over 592 per cent overcapacity.
75 per cent of their prisoners are held in pre-trial detention.
If they are unable to pay the bail set by the court, they have to wait for the court’s verdict on whether they are innocent or guilty.
Raymund Narag, an Associate Professor at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at SIU, said that this pre-trial process can take up five to 15 years.
Many who were presumed to be innocent had to plead guilty in hopes that they will be released early, said Dr Narag.
Mary Catherine Alvarez, executive director and co-founder of legal service NGO StreetLawPh, opined that having such a high number of people in pre-trial detention is “cruel and inhumane”.
Such detention centres, she added, are often rife with many problems such as the absence of essential healthcare and sanitation as well as running water.
In addition to that, detainees have been at risk of contracting diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B long before the COVID-19 outbreak had surfaced.
“We have to not lose sight of why our jails and prisons are filled to the brim and operating at overcapacity for the longest time.
“We need to use this time to think about our tendency to criminalise and impose imprisonment even for non-violent offenders,” urged Alvarez.