Bali's Dark Side
Image Credit: Jesse Wagstaff

Bali's Dark Side


Prisoners don’t normally illicit much sympathy. Their genuine gripes rarely receive the attention they deserve from the general public, who prefer to focus on the inadequacies of inmates and what they did to get behind bars in the first place.

Their plight is deserved is the prevailing attitude.

So it was in Bali, where prison riots recently grabbed international headlines on an island normally associated with sun drenched beaches, upmarket nightclubs and restaurants and an engaging middle class that has evolved around the millions of tourists who flock there every year.

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But Kerobokan prison, dubbed Hotel K, is far from the middle class incarceration and rehabilitation centers of the West – and just as far from the rapidly improving standards of living beyond the prison’s walls. It’s very much like the worst aspects of Indonesia, and very much in keeping with a third world country.

The recent riot erupted after an inmate was stabbed. Bali’s notorious street gangs have a reputation for carrying on their feuds inside the prison. More than a dozen guards on duty were overwhelmed and fled. Prison offices, mattresses and the armory were set on fire.

Three prisoners were then injured after more than 500 reinforcements arrived and traded tear gas and rubber bullets with rocks and Molotov Cocktails. Warden Bowo Nariwono and chief of security Anang Khuzaini have lost their jobs.

Kerobokan is perhaps Indonesia’s most notorious prison.  In mid-January, one convict was found dead after being tortured by 13 other prisoners. A riot erupted last June after a narcotics raid on the prison; investigators and prison officials were wounded. 

More importantly, the jail’s total population is more three times what the authoritiesintended. It houses more than 1,100 inmates; this includes about 60 foreigners, 125 women and 11 children.

Headlines from the riots, however, belonged to the foreigners.

They included convicted Australian drug trafficker Schapelle Corby, who is currently serving a 20-year sentence, and the Bali Nine, who face life terms or the death penalty for attempting to smuggle more than eight kilograms of heroin from Indonesia to Australia.

Many of the foreigners were evacuated as the rioting broke out. But when they discovered the shift was optional all decided to head back to Kerobokan. It was a case of better the devil you know, and that in itself speaks volumes for living conditions within the prison’s walls – those conditions are dreadful yet preferred to the greater unknown of another jail.

A synopsis for the book Hotel K the Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail paints a disturbing scene:  “It is a dark, bizarre and truly frightening underworld of sex, drugs, violence and squalor. Hotel K has become home to a procession of the infamous and tragic, from the Bali Bombers to the Bali Nine.

“In Hotel Kerobokan’s filthy, cramped and disease-ridden cells a ‘United Nations of prisoners’ – Australians, Americans, Germans, Brazilian, French, English, Scottish, Mexicans, Italians – live crushed together in misery.

“Petty thieves and small-time drug users share cells with killers, rapists and gangsters. Hardened drug traffickers sleep alongside unlucky tourists, who’ve seen their holiday turn from paradise to hell over an ecstasy tablet.”

Around 2.5 million tourist visit Bali every year, the vast majority from middle class countries who spend enormous amounts of money on local indulgences. The island paradise has survived attacks from Islamic militants, economic downturns and thrived.

While horrendous prison conditions can work as a deterrent for some tempted to tread on the wrong side of the law, an eye to establishing more humanitarian conditions, alongside the international standards that Indonesians desire, wouldn’t be unwarranted. And perhaps this might prevent further injuries or deaths in future.

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