Prison problems: planned and unplanned releases of convicted extremists in Indonesia


This report examines the number of Indonesian extremist prisoners due for parole, the recidivism rate, and the dynamics in prison between the “pragmatists” and the “rejectionists” among extremist inmates.


Many convicted Indonesian terrorists will be released over the next several years after serving time in prison. The Indonesian government has little capacity at present to provide adequate post-release monitoring, although it is taking some steps to remedy this. Under the circumstances, how much of a security risk do these releases pose? The answer is probably not as much as some people fear; the recidivism rate for convicted extremists remains low. The problem is that systems are not yet in place to keep track of individuals who are considered potential problems.

Any evaluation of risk must take several factors into account. One is the numbers involved. In early 2013, articles appeared in the regional media suggesting that 300 prisoners were due for release by the end of 2014. The National Anti-Terror Agency (Badan Nasional Penganggulangan Terorisme, BNPT) later stated the real figure was only 39. A more reasonable estimate is about 80 releases in 2013-2014, some of which have already taken place, with over 100 more in 2015- 2016. No one has exact data, however, and accurate predictions are close to impossible.

A second factor is the prison experience of those scheduled for release. It is simply not possible to assess risk on the basis of the activities that led to their convictions. Some of the men that might have been judged most dangerous appear to have modified their views and behavior; others who might have seemed low risk have grown more militant because of associations made in prison. Which way an individual turns may depend less on government “deradicalisation” programs -- although interventions that provide status and income can help -- than on the nature and influence of fellow inmates and connections maintained on the outside. In general, senior JI leaders tend to exert a moderating influence, whereas those who follow radical preacher Aman Abdurrahman are likely to keep the level of militancy high.

Other factors can also come into play, including the degree to which inmates can mix with ordinary criminal offenders. The problem of released prisoners does not relate just to those charged with terrorism but also to others they may have recruited. The largest cluster of repeat offenders among convicted extremists consists of men whose first offense had nothing to do with terrorism.

The riot in Tanjung Gusta prison, Medan, on 11 July 2013 was a reminder that in thinking about scheduled releases, one should think of unscheduled ones, too, even if the number of terrorist escapes over the last decade has been remarkably low. Overcrowding, understaffing and the poor physical condition of many Indonesian prisons combine to produce escapes of ordinary criminals so frequently that it is a wonder that not more extremists make the attempt.

To address these risks, improving the capacity of the Indonesian corrections system to analyse and respond to developments in prison is essential. It is also important for the government as a whole to recognize the need for improved post-release monitoring and allocate the necessary resources to put a better system in place.

Managing convicted extremists goes to two much larger issues, however. One is overall prison reform: the government acknowledges that the prison system as a whole is in a state of crisis and the Corrections Directorate with the Law and Human Rights Ministry has been receptive to donor assistance in trying to address it.

The second is the spread of extremist teachings in a way that generates new groups of young radicals convinced that violence is the way to address injustice, religious deviance and vice. Until the government does more to address this much more sensitive problem, the best monitoring program in the world will be of limited value.

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