Cover image: Jailed Aceh rebels look out from their cell at Sukamiskin prison in Bandung, the capital city of Indonesia's West Java province August 30, 2005.

It’s a familiar scenario. The judge’s gavel is knocked, and the verdict comes in: Guilty. Prison sentences and steep fines are handed down, and the people of Indonesia are relieved: the hard work of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the agency charged with investigating and prosecuting graft cases, is paying off. Politicians who lived luxuriously with money pilfered through corruption are finally being brought to justice.

Unfortunately, this is just a dream. Any thought that these corrupt officials will walk narrow prison halls with the masses is sorely misguided.

Convicted corrupt officials in Indonesia are living like kings in posh prison cells due to a scheme of bribery behind bars, said the KPK after visiting the Sukamiskin Prison in the West Java city of Bandung. For 200 million to 500 million rupiah (US$13,708 to US$34,269), graft offenders could pay for special facilities which look more like five-star hotel rooms than detention cells. Prisoners were also allowed to purchase special permission to come and go from the prison at their leisure.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An aerial view of Bandung's Sukamiskin Prison.

In a country where corruption is as ubiquitous as street-side nasi goreng, it is hardly an isolated incident: Since 2015, the top Sukamiskin official has been replaced five times due to the constant sale of special privileges to wealthy prisoners.

Graft offenders could pay for special facilities which look more like five-star hotel rooms than detention cells. Prisoners were also allowed to purchase special permission to come and go from the prison at their leisure.

Fahmi Darmawansyah, convicted in 2017 of bribery in a 1.2 trillion rupiah (US$82.3 million) maritime procurement project, has lived comfortably in a cell equipped with a refrigerator, air conditioning, flat screen TV, water heater, sink, and toilet seat.

O.C. Kaligis, a well-known lawyer for a judge’s bribery case, has enjoyed a detention cell that looks more like a private work space than a prison, complete with a TV, laptop, iPad, speakers, and printers.

Luthfi Hasan, the former president of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for corruption and money laundering in Indonesia’s “Beef-gate” scandal, also had his Sukamiskin cell raided. Along with similar facilities as those enjoyed by Darmawansyah, gym equipment and kitchen appliances were found in his cell.

In the following report by Indonesian news show Mata Najwa, Hasan gives a tour of his cell, which resembles a cozy studio apartment with room for bookshelves and a personal exercise bike:

KPK Deputy Chair Laode M. Syarief said high-profile convicts were up to their old tricks behind bars, bribing the head of Sukamiskin Prison, Wahid Husein, for “special packages” of prison luxury. Husein, who was sworn in only five months ago in March 2018, was detained by the KPK, which also confiscated two cars and cash which allegedly resulted from bribes he had received.

In the recent raid, the KPK confiscated a total of 102 million rupiah (US$6,989) in cash from the hands of prisoners, along with the contraband cell amenities.

The Indonesian community is used to corruption, and they often react with vitriol, seeing graft as a crime against humanity. The KPK was established in 2002 to fight back against the avalanche of financial misconduct. While the agency has a remarkable success record, it is chronically underfunded and often finds itself pitted against police, who resent KPK efforts to root out corrupt officers.

However, this recent incident slapped the country with the harsh reality that graft offenders, thought to be punished for pilfering public funds, were getting up to their old tricks once they were sentenced. Instead of stamping out corruption from Indonesian society, Sukamiskin prison was exposed as a nest for enabling old miscreants – and fostering new ones.

Prison bribery: An Indonesian epidemic

The journey to deter corrupt officials cannot stop when the gavel strikes and the offenders are hauled off to prison. The Sukamiskin affair shows that graft convicts must be watched closely as they serve their sentences. Bribery cases in prisons are still common, even though many prison leaders have been removed for their posts due to failing to carry out their correctional duties.

The most recent Sukamiskin case should jolt the Indonesian government, particularly its Ministry of Law and Human Rights, into action. Minister Yasonna Laoly certainly seemed exasperated when he told the media he would have to make yet another leadership change at Sukamiskin.

Those convicted of corruption are generally former dignitaries with abundant wealth. Unlike most prisoners, they have power and familiarity with the culture of bribing to get comfort. Meanwhile, prison heads rank far below them and fear potential consequences if they do not abide by the wishes of their powerful inmates.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Luthfi Hasan speaks to reporters after his arrest by Indonesia's KPK on Jan. 1, 2013.

There is irony in the fact that, to ensure that convicted criminals serve their sentences without bribing for privileges and perks, Indonesia requires the existence of exclusive prisons for graft offenders. In theory, these prisons should have a significant deterrent effect on their inmates, making them less likely to repeat their crimes either in prison or upon their return to society.

But corruption is deeply rooted in Indonesia, and the culture infests its prisons writ large. The government must have prison personnel with high integrity who feel protected from threats or consequences levied by their wealthy inmates. Transparency and accountability must be prioritized to restore people’s belief that every citizen has the same position in the eyes of the law, without exception.

Solution: Move to a ‘social cost’ penalty

Indonesia’s Corruption Act gives severe penalties to corrupt officials. There are six articles that impose a maximum sentence of 15-20 years imprisonment for perpetrators of corruption, while four other articles even allow life imprisonment in serious cases. However, maximum punishments are very rarely doled out.

According to a study conducted by Indonesian online news outlet Beritagar, out of 300 cases analyzed, 84% of convicts received sentences of five years or less. The NGO Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) observed that in 2016, the average sentence for corruption was just two years and one month in prison – less than it was in 2013, when sentences averaged two years and 11 months.

Not only that, but corruption convicts are permitted by law to file for remissions: reprieves from prison sentences, often given during holidays such as Eid al-Fitr. Combine this with existing practices of bribing prison officials for the privilege of enjoying plushy environs and a key to come and go from your cell, and prison begins to resemble a vacation.

When the government reviews their policies for punishing Indonesia’s graft offenders, they would do well to remember this: The greatest fear of corrupt officials is not imprisonment. What they really fear is being poor.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

The office of Indonesia's KPK anti-graft agency in Jakarta.

The KPK conducted a study with Dr. Rimawan Pradiptyo, a specialist on crime economics from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, which found that fines levied on those guilty of corruption must also contain social costs.

These social costs are calculated from social losses, both tangible and intangible, resulting from acts of corruption, For example, if a bridge project sees 5 billion rupiah (US$342,650) pilfered from its coffers, the government not only loses that portion of its budget, but also sees the community suffer economically due to the failure of the bridge.

President Joko Widodo denounced corruption as an “extraordinary crime” for this very reason: Great acts of corruption result in snowballing losses for Indonesian communities. This is especially true when the stolen funds are mandated for use on public development projects which catalyze local economies.

The greatest fear of corrupt officials is not imprisonment. What they really fear is being poor.

The social cost formula reviewed in the KPK study could increase the demands for corruption defendants with a larger fine, as it truly reflects the total state losses due to corruption. In the KPK study, the increase could reach at least four times the financial penalty given by the court to the convicted person.

If a social cost-based penalty can be implemented, corrupt officials will be forced to return financial losses to the economy they originally stole from. The threat of more severe financial penalties will certainly deter officials from engaging in bribery and pilfering. And if corruption convicts are stripped of their riches before being imprisoned, there won’t be a need for the government to painstakingly build special prisons for graft offenders – after all, they won’t have the means to bribe prison guards and live lavishly on the inside.

Read Next: Corruption 101: An Insider's Guide to Graft in Indonesia

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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