Indonesian Prison Fire Kills at Least 41 People

A fire at a prison in Indonesia killed at least 41 people and injured eight more, the authorities said Wednesday, adding to the sense of crisis facing the country’s overcrowded correctional system, which already has been buffeted by the pandemic.

The cause of the fire at the Tangerang prison, about 25 miles west of the nation’s capital of Jakarta, was still under investigation, said Rika Aprianti, a spokeswoman for the Directorate General of Prisons. But the Jakarta police said they suspected that it had been caused by a short circuit in the prison’s electrical system.

The image of dozens of orange body bags lying on the floor of a hospital was broadcast over national television in Indonesia on Wednesday morning, bringing home the human toll of the blaze.

Yasonna Laoly, the minister of law and human rights, visited the prison on Wednesday to inspect the damage, and said he had instructed staff to focus on the evacuation of the prison and the recovery of the victims.

“I convey my deepest condolences for the victims of this fire,” he said, adding that an investigation was underway. “This is a tragedy that concerns all of us.”

The police said eight people were seriously injured in the fire, though local media reported that more than 70 had suffered minor injuries. All those killed were prisoners, the authorities said.

Ms. Aprianti said that the fire had broken out at about 1:45 a.m. in a cell block for prisoners convicted in narcotics cases.

The Tangerang prison is in Banten Province, in Tangerang, an industrial center on the western tip of Indonesia’s Java island.

The prison had been grappling with overcapacity, Ms. Aprianti said, with 2,069 inmates occupying a facility built to hold 900 prisoners. She said that only 13 guards were available to monitor the entire prison population during each shift. “That’s the challenge we are facing,” she said.

The authorities said the prison was working on identifying the victims and communicating with the affected families.

The fire is likely to fuel debate in Indonesia about the state of the prison system. As of March 2020, the country had roughly 270,000 inmates, according to data cited by Human Rights Watch, which said that estimate was more than double the system’s capacity.

The pandemic has exacerbated problems stemming from overcrowding. Human rights activists in recent months have called on the government to reduce the prison population after inmates were infected with Covid-19 at more than a dozen facilities in the country.

A report last year by Human Rights Watch on the spread of Covid-19 in the country’s prisons described a prison system ill-equipped to contain outbreaks and to care for sick prisoners. It cited deficiencies in health care, water, sanitation and hygiene.

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