Manado, Indonesia – A riot in a prison in Indonesia's North Sulawesi province where at least one guard is reportedly exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms has highlighted the risk posed by the coronavirus the Southeast Asian nation's 524 overcrowded jails.
On Saturday afternoon, the inmates of Tuminting Prison in the city of Manado went on a rampage and set fire to buildings. Hundreds of police and soldiers later stormed the jail with live rounds being fired and at least one inmate shot in the chest, according to a source at the facility and various local media reports.
On Sunday morning, Manado police chief Ponidin, who like many Indonesians goes by one name only, told Al Jazeera the situation at Tuminting Prison had been brought under control. He said he did not know the cause of the riot and declined to comment further.
However, online newspaper Sindo Manado reported the riot began after rumours spread among the inmates that a guard was suspected to have the coronavirus. When demands for mass testing by other inmates went unanswered by prison authorities, they became incensed and demanded to be released.
There has been no confirmed case of COVID-19 inside Indonesia's correctional facilities. But a source inside Tuminting Prison, who spoke on condition of anonymity over fears of reprisal, said officials were trying to hide the start of an outbreak.
"There are other prisoners with symptoms but there are no testing kits so they can't confirm a thing. They don't want it to come out, but the jails are probably full of it," the source said.
John McLeod of Tora Solutions, an Australian security firm that assists foreign inmates around the world, says the situation is also volatile inside Bali's Kerobokan Prison. Known as Hotel K, the facility was designed for 352 inmates but currently houses 1,670, including 76 foreigners.
"The prison officials at Kerobokan are really trying. They are not just sitting back. They are getting prisoners out into the sun and disinfecting the grounds," McLeod said.
"But resources in Indonesia are very limited. There are no testing kits and social distancing in a prison that has four or five times the population it is supposed to have is impossible. So there is a legitimate fear, especially among the foreign inmates because consulate staff have all fled and there is no consular assistance."
Officials at Kerobokan Prison have also banned visitors since March 31 and introduced infrared body temperature scanners to prevent guards from bringing the disease inside.
But according to John Miller, a mathematical epidemiologist at Australia's La Trobe University, taking peoples' temperatures "does not provide much security because the evidence suggests that a decent amount of COVID-19 transmission comes from infected people who are yet to show symptoms".
In Jakarta, Minister for Law and Human Rights Yasonna Hamonangan Laoly signed a decree at the beginning of April to release more than 30,000 inmates to reduce overcrowding and COVID-19 infection rates.
But that still leaves the country's prisons with about 100,000 more inmates than they were designed to hold. And the decree does not appear to apply to any of the 627 foreign inmates and detainees in Indonesia, including Donya Louise Preston, a South African woman serving 20 years for drug trafficking at Tuminting Prison.
No reprieve for foreign inmates
Back at Kerobokan Prison, where approximately 300 Indonesian prisoners have already been released amid a handful of male and female inmates exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms – McLeod is telling his clients not to hold their breaths.
"I have seen documentation where it says 53 foreigners who have completed two-thirds of their sentence and been identified for early release, but in the same document it also says foreigners are not included, so it's causing a bit of angst. The hardest thing for me is letting them know, especially people like Matty," he said, referring to Matthew Norman, an Australian drug smuggler serving a life sentence without eligibility for parole.
"Matty was a teenager when he was caught. He knows what he did was wrong and has been behind bars for nearly 17 years now. He's done remarkable work in the prison and is a great benefit to everyone there. The warden has been writing letters to Indonesia's President for years to try to get him out."
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not immediately respond to enquiries. McLeod says his attempts to engage the department over the fate of Norman and five other Australian inmates at Kerobokan he represents have not been successful.
"My gut feeling is I don't think anyone is going to come and rescue them. They will have to bear it unless the death count climbs so high it becomes unbearable for the Indonesian government and they let all the prisoners go."
Prison riots could spread
Craig Cumming, a research associate at the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Western Australia who studies the mental health of inmates in Australian prisons, said the Australian government should appeal for clemency for its citizens jailed in Indonesia given the extraordinary circumstances.
"Where a prison is so overcrowded and they cannot physically distance people, I can imagine that there will be a high level of anxiety and prisoners would take risks they would not normally take by rioting and making weapons," he said. "And I suspect those prisons are not well staffed with enough guards, so if something did happen in there it would be much more difficult to control."
Cumming added: "I think there is also probably a high risk of it spreading to other prisons in Indonesia."
Ross Taylor, president of the Indonesia Institute, a foreign policy think-tank at Melbourne's Monash University, concurred.
"Indonesian prisons are unique in that many prisoners have mobile phone and access to the outside world, and what concerns us is that what happened in Manado last night will become widespread through the country," he said.
"It's an extremely disturbing development but not one that is surprising because we have known for a month now that testing regimes in Indonesia are hopelessly inadequate," Taylor said, reflecting data by pandemic website Woldometer that shows Indonesia has one of the poorest testing rates in the world.
Only 71 in every million people in the country have been tested compared with 1,030 per million in Thailand, 8,068 in the United States and 15,730 per million in Germany.
"When such low testing is combined with overcrowding in prisons, the poor areas of Jakarta and even in hospitals, it is inevitable that it was going to cause major problems for the government and virtually explode," he said. And that is something Australia right next door needs to be very cognizant of."