Jakarta prison warden reveals risks of working in overcrowded jail amid COVID-19 pandemic   

JAKARTA: As the head of security at Jakarta’s overcrowded Cipinang penitentiary, Wisnu Hani Putranto spends his days inspecting the prison way past his shift from 8am till midnight.

The 35-year-old’s biggest fear nowadays is that COVID-19 may creep into the cells.

“If someone has COVID-19, the spread of the disease will be so rapid. We could all quickly die,” he said.

All the staff and inmates are required to wear a mask within the facility, but that is not a foolproof protection against COVID-19. 

The prison in East Jakarta has the capacity to hold around 900 inmates but is currently home to around 3,600 prisoners. The prison’s 300 staff members are commuting to work daily, and only a few live in a nearby flat provided by the government. 

“No one can guarantee the staff are healthy while every day, they need to interact with thousands of inmates.

“They leave their houses, use public transport or motorbikes, perhaps come into physical contact with someone along the way, and then enter the prison,” the warden said.

Cipinang penitentiary

Cipinang prison staff are worried COVID-19 could spread in the prison. (Photo courtesy of Wisnu Hani Putranto)  

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The prison’s severe overcrowding and the fact that capital Jakarta is the epicenter of the outbreak in Indonesia – with more than 4,500 COVID-19 cases so far – means that the fear of a possible spread of COVID-19 in the jail is real.

Cipinang prison is not the only overcrowded penitentiary in the country, as many others face the same problem. 

Last month, the government decided to grant early releases to some 38,000 general crimes and juvenile inmates who have served at least two-thirds of their sentence to minimise the risk of COVID-19 spreading in the country’s jails.


One cell at the Cipinang prison should ideally house five convicts but in reality, up to 20 people are living in one small room.

The release of about 400 inmates in early April did not significantly reduce the number of inmates in the cells.

“It is very hard to implement social distancing in such crowds,” said Putranto who has been working at correctional facilities since 2002.  

The day starts at 7am with a daily roll call and the wardens counting all of the inmates manually, followed by sports activities. 

READ: Why Indonesia has the highest COVID-19 fatality rate in Asia

READ: Movement of people into Jakarta set to tighten as surrounding satellite towns enact own social restrictions against COVID-19

The prisoners then receive their breakfast boxes at 8am.

“They are inmates. Sometimes they just want to take their breakfast quickly because they’re hungry and then they nudge each other.”

Each cell is equipped with a toilet and a bathroom. The inmates have their own mattresses and pillows.

“If someone has COVID-19, the entire room will have it. And then there are activities which they conduct together in their free time outside of the cells, like sports and sunbathing. They also help each other to pluck grey hairs or scrape their bodies (when they are unwell), and even shower together in the common bathrooms,” Putranto said.

But the authorities are trying their best to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the prison by disinfecting the cells daily and performing a random rapid test on the inmates as there are limited COVID-19 tests in the country.

Since Indonesia announced its first COVID-19 cases in early March, the penitentiary has also banned people from visiting the prisoners.

The staff have informed the inmates about the danger of the coronavirus and told them that they cannot have visitors for the time being.

Indonesian inmates at a Jakarta prison talk via video to family members after visits were stopped

Indonesian inmates at a Jakarta prison talk via video to family members after visits were stopped because of coronavirus fears. Authorities have now gone further, and are releasing tens of thousands of prisoners in a bid to stop the spread of the virus in overcrowded jails AFP/HANDOUT

“We told them, if your relatives come for a visit and if they have the disease, the entire prison will be dead.

“And they said, ’We don’t want that sir,’” Putranto said.

But the head of security noted that the wardens also have to take care of the inmates’ psychological well-being.

“If you don’t see your wife and children for a few days, you’ll miss them.

“And they have now been experiencing this for two months. They haven’t received visits from their loved ones who usually come and bring along some food for them,” he said.

Therefore, they accommodate daily virtual visits of about 10 minutes for each convict.


Apart from COVID-19, the senior warden also has to deal with daily squabbles between the prisoners, such as fights and arguments.

“Sometimes they fight among roommates, sometimes with inmates from another room.

“There have also been incidents when they attacked the officers,” Putranto revealed.

The prisoners are not allowed to have a mobile phone and sharp objects, but Putranto said they can turn everything into a weapon. 

READ: Cooped up in small homes and lacking awareness, Jakarta’s urban poor find it tough amid partial lockdown

“Once, one of my subordinates was attacked with an iron weapon fashioned out of spoons and nails, and he had to get stitches.

“The inmates can use everything such as a spoon or even a toothbrush. If they just see a little iron fragment, they can turn it into a sharp weapon,” he said.

The fights could be triggered by anything, such as meeting old foes, arguing about debts they owed prior to their imprisonment, unintentional food spills and petty incidents such as an inmate using the other person’s soap.

“Sometimes while I sleep at night, I have bad dreams about work, the problems I encounter at work.

”Because with that many inmates, it’s impossible that there will be no problems,” Putranto told CNA.

File photo of a prison

File photo of a prison. (Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad)

Cipinang prison has about 160 wardens who work in six different groups across three shifts. 

The youngest convict in the all-male jail is 20 years old, while the oldest is 70 years old.

One convict, who was granted an early release last month, has now returned to Cipinang prison because he was caught stealing a handphone.

READ: ‘I can barely take a break’ – Gravediggers in Jakarta race against time as deaths linked to COVID-19 rise

“We have now put him in an isolation cell. He cannot leave the cell at all. That’s the punishment,” he said.

A total of 120 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras are installed in Cipinang prison to help the wardens maintain security. Due to budget constraints, not every room has one as priority is given to cells holding terrorist convicts.

“We have to work hard, need to maintain a high spirit, and even in this current condition we have to fight hard to maintain security.”


“People only look at the medical teams, but people like us who work in correctional facilities are also working hard.

“People don’t know that we are also vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19,” Putranto said.

He added that because of his job, he barely has time to see his 11-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son.

Wisnu Hani Putrantro Cipinang prison

As the head of security at Cipinang penitentiary Wisnu Hani Putranto (right) usually works past his shift until midnite. (Photo courtesy: Wisnu Hani Putranto)  

While they are mostly understanding, they do sometimes ask him when they can spend time together, he said.

Putranto also explained that his job is risky as there are inmates who have other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Some are also HIV positive. They are warded in separate rooms, and the prison has doctors and nurses to look after them. 

“So our job is extraordinary. We have to take care of naughty and sick people,” he said.

Putranto believed if there were more CCTV cameras in place and every inmate be given electronic bracelets, the wardens do not need to be physically close to the inmates.  

However, this requires a budget they do not have.

“I just hope this COVID-19 pandemic will soon be over. And that no staff member will contract the disease because if one person has it, it will affect thousands of inmates.

“And if one inmate gets infected, the risk of the virus spreading is very big and it could lead to riots and chaos,” he said.

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