A Tale of Two Prisons

What Indonesia can learn from Singapore on how to manage their prisons.


A former inmate of Salemba Penitentiary, Syarifudin S. Pane, released a video from his cellphone taken in 2008 depicting the conditions inside the prison and the stark contrast between the treatment of inmates convicted of corruption and other crimes.

Syarifudin claimed that Block K – notorious for housing convicted corruptors such as Nurdin Halid (former Chairman of Indonesian Soccer Association, for illegal smuggling of imported sugar and corruption of cooking oil distribution) and Said Agil (former Minister of Religious Affair, for corruption of Hajj funds) – have rooms equipped with air-conditioning, refrigerator, water dispenser, and even gym and karaoke facilities inside the block, all with the price of IDR 30 million (US$3,330) per room in addition to IDR 1,250,000 (US$135) per month for electricity, security and cleaning services.

Despite the oddities of why Syarifudin was allowed to bring a cellphone inside the prison in the first place, the story of exclusive treatment of inmates with the expense of bad treatment of others is not new in Indonesia. In early 2010, for example, the head of Pondok Bambu Penitentiary was released from his duties along with the rotation of several prison officers due to the case of Artalyta Suryani’s penitentiary pent house.

How do you prevent discriminatory treatment such as these in Indonesia when you know that the very institution that is supposed to penalize corruption is corrupt? In this post I examine the organization of prisons in Indonesia and roughly explain how it is done in Singapore.


Before we move on, it is important to know the difference between a penitentiary (rumah tahanan) and correctional facility (lembaga pemasyarakatan) in the Indonesian criminal justice system. A penitentiary is a temporary place where criminal suspects are held, pending of their final and binding decision from the court regarding their punishment. Correctional facilities on the other hand is a place where convicted criminals are held, and it is where they are supposed to get their guidance and re-education before entering into society again.

By function, penitentiaries and correctional facilities are different, but both are Technical Implementation Units (unit pelaksana teknis) carrying out some tasks and functions of the Directorate General for Corrections of the Ministry for Law and Human Rights. Each of them are managed by the head of the penitentiary or head of correctional facility allocated to each regions in Indonesia.

My first puzzle here, is why are convicted corruptors held in penitentiaries and not in correctional facilities?

The immediate response would be that there is currently a problem of overcrowding in Indonesian prisons, thus more often than not, criminal suspects are put into correctional facilities temporarily, or if the correctional facilities are full, convicted criminals are put into penitentiaries. Consequently, one would think that why are penitentiaries and correctional facilities differentiated in the first place because it boils down to the very same thing.

Overcrowding in prisons may signify that not much resources are allocated for the rehabilitation of inmates in Indonesia. It’s also not a politically popular issue either, resulting the low priority for the welfare of prisoners.

However, overcrowding is simply not just a matter of not enough prisons, but also how the overall criminal justice system (involving the courts, police and the prosecutor’s office) is carried out in Indonesia. Patrialis Akbar, the previous Minister of Law and Human Rights, have also once said that overcrowding might also be caused by unnecessary prosecution of petty crimes. If trivial cases such as selling an iPad without a manual or an illiterate grandma “stealing” palm oil seeds worth Rp 2,000 (US$0.22) are being prosecuted, perhaps Patrialis has a point.

Separate from the problem of overcrowding, corruption in prisons should be given special attention. First and foremost, I would see that putting corruptors behind bars will have no penalizing effect, but freezing their assets and returning what belongs to the state should be the initial punitive action that prosecutors aim for. Afterwards, they can be put to jail as a secondary punishment.

When corruptors are held in prisons with access to their assets in hand, they have the opportunity to exploit the low incentives that the prison officers currently have and develop patron-client relationships within the confinement, as they have the means to pay the prison officers in exchange for better treatment.

If the government does not put a priority into how the prisons are being managed and look carefully on the human resources of people running the prisons, the problem will become a never ending cycle and most importantly, there is no incentive for people to deter themselves in doing corruption because they know they can easily pay their way out.


In contrast with how prisons are run in Indonesia, this semester one of the case studies that I did in my public management class is on the Singapore Prison Service (SPS). The SPS have gained a lot of awards, from the Excellent Service Awards to the Top 10 Best Employers in Singapore.

I am amazed on how successful SPS is and how one can make a career in correctional facilities. One of the lessons learned in this case is that the achievement is largely due to the organizational culture embedded within SPS.

Recruitment ad for the Singapore Prison Service

Even though they are a government agency under the Ministry of Home Affairs, the SPS operates efficiently like a corporation. It gets the job done by emphasizing the common values shared by the people inside the organization, which shaped their attitudes and behavior aimed for better performance.

The organizational culture of the SPS was transformed by the leadership of Chua Chin Kiat, which took over the Director position in 1998 and was instrumental in directing the new vision and mission for the SPS, calling themselves the “Captains of Lives”. Prison officers believe that they are the Captains in the lives of inmates, responsible for their journey for rehabilitation, and not just punishment.

What I take away from the story of SPS is that code of ethics (like the one in Indonesia) can only go so much for controlling the behaviors of staff, as it is often violated without any real sanctions. It really takes the leadership of the organization to manage and motivate their people to take ownership for better results and leveraging culture is a powerful tool to do so.

Shaping culture should be strategically relevant. In the case of SPS, the “Captains of Lives” culture was aligned to their business strategy of “Executing Justice, Reducing Reoffending, and Preventing Offending”.

Employees should have intense training and socialization to embody this culture, recruitment should ideally be targeted for people that has the cultural fit (see recruitment ad above), and rewards system should be put in place (however, usually bureaucratic rules prevent organizations to do this). Culture will then empower people to think and act on their own in pursuit of the strategic objectives.

The SPS also collaborated with aftercare agencies in order to reduce the recidivism rates and gained public support with their yellow ribbon campaign, creating awareness to give ex-offenders second chances in society. I believe this aftercare rehabilitation process is important, especially in the case of terrorism acts in Indonesia as ex-offenders may regroup with their extremist communities after prison (they even recruit in prisons).

There are several other innovations that the SPS pursued, such as the cluster management system, integrated electronic database of inmates or better educational and rehabilitative activities, which had a lot to do with the SPS strategic planning and research branch, the “think-tank” of the organization.


A lot of people say that Singapore had it easy because it’s a small country, unlike Indonesia. I believe the problem is not about size per se, but more on the political willingness to change how prisons are managed in Indonesia. I’ve explained the urgency of the problem in Indonesian prisons, and possible solutions from Singapore that the government can look at, so what else is the government waiting for?

One thought on “A Tale of Two Prisons”

  1. How to become a millionaire in Indonesia

    Plan A
    Study hard, worker harder and take risks by creating a business that may make you a millionaire in 20 years

    Plan B
    Get a job in the tax department. Steal the government’s money. Pay off the police and courts to get a lenient sentence when/if caught and convicted. Do five years in a maximum luxury penitenciary. After five years you are free (and filthy rich).

    Which plan makes more rational sense? What’s the best way of structuring your assets and liabilities?

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