- The Tangerang Block, which was built for 38, had 122 occupants when the fire broke out
- Jail sentences for drug criminals are blamed for chronic prison overcrowding
- All of the fatalities were inmates; one each from South Africa and Portugal
TANGERANG, Indonesia, Sept. 8 (Reuters) – A fire killed 41 inmates in an overcrowded prison block in Indonesia’s Banten province.
The fire, the deadliest in the country since 47 people were killed in a fireworks factory in 2017, broke out in a prison block in Tangerang at 1:45 a.m., Indonesian Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said after visiting the scene.
“We are working with the relevant authorities to investigate the causes of the fire and of course to formulate prevention strategies so that such severe disasters do not recur,” the minister said in a statement.
The minister said two of the dead were foreigners, one each from South Africa and Portugal, and confirmed that the prison was overburdened when the fire broke out. The cells were locked at the time, said the minister, but as the fire raged uncontrollably, “some rooms could not be opened.”
On Wednesday, Rika Aprianti, a spokeswoman for the ministry’s prison department, said 122 were detained for drug offenses in a block built for 38 people.
Rika said all 41 deaths were inmates, adding that authorities were still evacuating the facility as of 9:00 a.m. local time.
The prisons in Indonesia are notoriously overcrowded. Experts say the phenomenon is due in part to the emphasis on incarceration, rather than rehabilitation, of individuals convicted of drug offenses under the country’s strict narcotics laws.
On Wednesday morning, local television showed footage of flames engulfing the detention center, and later the charred remains of the building were seen as victims were dragged from the scene in orange body bags.
Dr. Hilwani of Tangerang General Hospital told Reuters that some of the bodies were cremated so badly that they were unidentifiable.
Metro TV quoted a police report that 73 people had suffered minor injuries. “The initial suspicion was an electrical short circuit,” said police spokesman Yusri Yunus the station.
The prison’s electrical wiring has not been modernized since 1972, when the prison was built, Minister Yasonna said in the briefing on Wednesday.
According to the government, the prison in Tangerang, an industrial and production center on the outskirts of Jakarta, housed more than 2,000 inmates in September, far exceeding the capacity of 600.
Leopold Sudaryono, a criminologist and graduate student at the Australian National University, said overcrowding is also making emergency evacuation efforts difficult.
“In Tangerang Prison, only five guards work on a shift to guard a prison with 2,079 people,” he said. “So fire detection and evacuation efforts are difficult.”
The prison director was not immediately available to comment on the prisoner-to-guard ratio or the facility’s capacity. Prison Department spokeswoman Rika told local media that 13 guards were on duty at the facility at the time of the fire.
Several fatal fires have occurred in Indonesia in recent years. In addition to the fire at the fireworks factory in Tangerang in 2017, 30 people were killed in a fire in a match factory in North Sumatra in 2019.
Additional reporting from Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Fransiska Nangoy and Johan Purnomo; Writing by Gayatri Suroyo and Kate Lamb; Editing by Ed Davies and and Kenneth Maxwell
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