I spent Friday observing a training in a prison about an hour from Jakarta. The prison complex itself was compact and tidy, a circle of buildings arranged around a manicured lawn and cheerful, flowering plantings. It houses just over 1,000 inmates convicted of crimes ranging from corruption to murder to terrorism; a large number have been convicted of drug-related crimes. Most of the men who attended my organization’s training looked like they couldn’t be much older than twenty. Some of them had riotous tattoos cascading down their upper bodies, which on first glance made them look tough, until I noticed their delicate, near-hairless wrists and forearms.
While inmates have the option to work in the prison’s several small businesses—which range from growing mushrooms to farming catfish to sewing mattresses to painting cars—religious activity seems to one of the primary ways to pass time while incarcerated. In a nod to Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions, the prison complex houses a large mosque, a Confucian/Buddhist temple and a church; in a relatively small complex, these houses of worship take up a surprisingly large amount of space. A former inmate who was invited to speak to the training participants yesterday emphasized that he spent much of his time in prison studying Islam and praying, and seemed to credit his successful transition post-release (he now owns several food carts) to his devotion.
There’s been growing concern over the past decade that religious radicalization is on the rise in Indonesian prisons, especially as more and more religious radicals convicted of terrorism are incarcerated; some guards have even been radicalized by inmates they have regular contact with. While the spread of radical ideology is tied to many complex factors here, and while I am almost certain radical ideas are not preached in prison-based houses of worship, the idea of religious transformations—whether conversion or a deepening of commitment to an already-held belief system—occurring during incarceration here seemed perfectly logical after seeing the layout of a prison.