At Least 41 Prisoners, Some Trapped in Cells, Die in a Fire in Indonesia

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

The cause of the fire at the Tangerang prison, about 25 miles west of the capital, 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 on Wednesday morning, bringing home the human toll of the blaze. Television footage showed firefighters battling the fire at the prison, which was surrounded by a concrete wall and engulfed in flames.

In addition to the eight people who suffered serious injuries in the fire, 73 suffered minor injuries, according to the authorities. All those killed were prisoners.

Yasonna Laoly, the minister of law and human rights, said the fire’s victims included an inmate involved in a terrorism case and another involved in a murder, while the rest had been imprisoned for drug-related offenses. He said one victim was from South Africa and another from Portugal.

Among those who died were prisoners trapped in their locked cells as the fire spread.

Mr. Laoly said the fire broke out at 1:45 a.m. in what the authorities said was a bloc usually reserved for prisoners convicted in narcotics cases. After officers noticed the fire, he said, the head of security immediately called the fire department, and 12 fire trucks arrived within 13 minutes.

Because the cells were locked, Mr. Laoly said, some prisoners were unable to escape, and 40 died “on the spot,” while one died on the way to the hospital. Prison staff members managed to unlock some cells, and 75 people were evacuated.

“Under prison procedures, the cells must be locked,” Mr. Laoly said. He added that the fire had been extinguished in 90 minutes and that the prison would be reviewing its security procedures.

Mr. Laoly visited the prison on Wednesday to inspect the damage, and said he had instructed staff members to focus on the recovery of the victims.

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

The prison is in Tangerang, an industrial center in Banten Province on the western tip of Java island. The prison was built in 1972, and the electrical system hadn’t been updated in decades, the authorities said. The prison had also been grappling with overcapacity, with 2,072 inmates occupying a facility built to hold 900 prisoners.

Ms. Rika, the spokeswoman, 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.

She 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 the 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.

A report last year by Human Rights Watch on the spread of Covid-19 in the country’s prisons described a 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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