Notes from a 'five star' prison cell - Life in an Acehnese jail by Lesley McCulloch
On 10 September 2002, Lesley McCulloch was arrested in Aceh with her friend
Joy Lee Sadler and their Indonesian translator,Fitrah, and charged with
visa violations, which she denied. She was held in jail for over two months
before her trial, which concluded when she was sentenced to five months
jail on 30 December, then released on 9 February. McCulloch's case is
significant because it is unusual for foreigners accused of visa violations
to be detained for such a long period, rather than simply deported. It is
widely believed that the Indonesian military meant to make an example of
McCulloch, an academic who has been critical of the TNI'srole in Aceh. In
the following account, which she wrote following the departure of her cell
mates, she details prison life.
Arrested in a remote corner of South Aceh on 10September, Joy and I were
suspected of violating our tourist visas. Thebus on which we were
travelling was stopped at an Indonesian checkpoint.The aggressive and
poorly-trained officers requested that we open our bags.Distrustful of
their intentions, we insisted on placing a call to the USor UK embassy to
inform them of what had become a very volatile situation.
In the same manner in which they would deal with the local people - and
having no idea how else to address the situation- the local commander
became physically aggressive as he tried to separate me from my bag. Joy's
response was immediate, she came to my defence; at which point a small
fight ensued. The injury to Joy's mouth, inflicted by the commander, had
not healed by the time she was released in mid-January.
For four days we were detained in South Aceh police HQ. There were no
further beatings in the police station, but the interrogation and
intimidation was itself tortuous. Joy and I refused to sign the fabricated
statements that were the result of this interrogation process. Our Acehnese
companion, Fitrah did sign her statement. She was afraid and we understood
her fear. Joy and I were somewhat protected by our foreignness.
Me were then transported, in a convoy of 10 trucks,to Medan, North Sumatra.
ón arrival in Medan, we were photographed and our fingerprints taken.
Indonesian intelligence officers were also waiting to question us. We were
tired, and Fitrah and Joy were both sick.But all requests to end the
interrogation were refused.
It was 2am when I suddenly became acutely aware that my clarity of mind was
perhaps not all it should be. I became afraid I might say something which
would prove problematic later. So, I lay on the floor and closed my eyes as
if asleep. The other two took the cue and adopted similar uncooperative
positions. We did not respond to the rage that followed. The interrogation
Arriving in Banda Aceh the following day by plane,we were taken to
provincial police HQ in Polda. Our accommodation for the next three months
was a windowless office. Further interrogation produced insufficient
evidence to convict us of the espionage-related charges called for by the
military and police in Jakarta, but those months were a time of extreme
stress. Uncertainty and intimidation filled each day.
Our arrival at the jail was quite spectacular.An entourage of friends and
activists, four lawyers and embassy staff came with us. Joy had insisted on
bringing four kittens and the mother cat that had been sharing our room at
Polda. All were accepted graciously by the staff at the jail. And so we
became just two more among 117 prisoners,only seven of whom were women.
The women's section of the prison is a tiny outside area with only two
cells. Each one measures approximately three by five metres. Three of us
shared that space; half of the cell was taken up by the bed - a raised
concrete platform with raffia mats. In the corner, there is a squat toilet
with a small concrete tank of water for flushing. The water comes from a
communal tap outside. There is no shower or bathroom,and even as I write,
seven weeks after our arrival, I have yet to come to terms with brushing my
teeth over a squat toilet.
A window and the open door allow daylight in.And one dim light bulb hangs
from an almost deadly electrical cable. Turning the bulb in the socket
gives light, but almost invariably also gives a bad electric shock. I have
had several blistered fingers and throbbing arms from the evil socket. But
much of the time there is no electricity,and at night we sit by candlelight.
The temperature in the cell is often unbearable,so too are the mosquitoes.
There are also flying ants, cockroaches and mice sharing this tiny space.
Sometimes it becomes rather crowded!
There is a small coffee stall, staffed by one of the prisoners. Acehnese
coffee is delicious; strong, black, and for me, unsweetened. It fortifies
me for the day ahead. When the others were still here, we would sit outside
for our first discussion of the day, drinking coffee and occasionally
eating a small block of tofu for breakfast. Talks revolved around how well
we had slept, and whether good health or sickness was predicted for the
If there was any water early we would drink our coffee more quickly and
there would be a flurry of water-based activities.We took it in turns to
collect a bucket of water and shower. The others sat outside, allowing just
a little privacy in the day.
When Joy was still here, much of the day was busy with discussing and
dealing with issues surrounding her ill-health and hunger strike. We were
afraid, as Joy's health visibly deteriorated in the unsanitary and hot
conditions. By day 37 of her hunger strike she was in desperate need of
intravenous nourishment. But the local hospitals were unwilling to help
because she was HIV-positive. On day 38 of her hunger strike (3 January),
Joy told me: 'I feel so weak, I want to go to sleep and never wake up.'
This frightened both of us and Joy decided to try to start her own
intravenous drip. She is a nurse. In my diary that day I wrote: 'I feel so
desperate about Joy. It really was quite pathetic to see her failed
attempts to start an IV in her collapsed veins. This caused distress to all
of us. Only Dewi cried, whilst the rest of us stood in silence.'
The heat would make Joy's condition much worse.Dewi would sit and fan Joy
for several hours. They would sit in silence.Joy spoke no Indonesian and
Dewi no English. And Irawati massaged Joy'saches and pains in the same
silent way, making soothing noises as she did so. It was really quite
moving to see this silent show of solidarity and sympathy.
Unlike the men, the women are placed here to await trial, but once
sentenced, sent to Lho'gna prison, about 17km from here.Only Joy and I were
not moved to Lho'gna after sentencing. Our lawyers had requested that we be
allowed to remain here in Banda Aceh. All were afraid for my safety if
transferred to Lho'gna. There are many military posted in that area, and by
all accounts the anger that had fuelled their earlier call that espionage
charges be brought against me continues to simmer. It is much better I
remain at a distance.
The trial process is very slow and all the women had been in this prison
for several months. With usually only one short trial a week, the length of
this process is itself the cause of much stress.Even the most minor cases
stretch out over two months. Of the seven women,three of us - Reihan, Joy
and I - were political cases; Mar's was conflict related; and the other
three were gambling and fraud. Reihan had decried President Megawati at a
demonstration she helped to organise. When she was finally sentenced to six
months in jail, she only had two more weeks to serve.
On days when one of us had a trial there was always an air of solidarity
and optimism. We would gather to hug and wish good luck to whoever was
going to court. Their return was eagerly awaited. If news was good, it
would lift all our spirits.
Sickness and depression
The sickness and depression suffered by many is a product of prison life. A
doctor comes occasionally, but not each week,to dispense some basic
medicines and write prescriptions for anything strong.Most, however, have
no money to buy the medicines provided. The water used by the men to bathe,
comes from a very old (and smelly) well. Many have open and infected sores
because of the parasites in the water. Lethargy and fever is common.
One young prisoner is in urgent need of an operation.He was shot in the
foot four months ago and this foot is now badly infected and he can hardly
walk, the pain visible on his face. But the all-powerful prosecutors won't
give permission for him to be hospitalised until after sentencing, perhaps
one more month. The reason? He is too poor to pay the requested 'fee'.
Bribery in the judicial system and the impact this has on the length of
prison term, ill-health and stress is a favourite topic of conversation.
I am here alone now. Three of the other female prisoners, including Joy,
have been released. The remainder have been sent to another prison. My days
are very similar but much quieter, lonelier and, so it seems, longer. When
Dewi, an Indonesian cell mate, and Joy were here, I would be careful not to
waken them. Sleep for all of us was always sat a premium. Now I have the
luxury of this space all to myself. Some of the male prisoners tell me I
have the jail's five-star accommodation. They are crowded four to seven
people in one cell.
I have found solace in writing my diary. But the stories of human misery
and tragedy I have heard in prison, made worse by the corrupt and inhumane
judicial system, are at times too much to comprehend.In an attempt to
relieve some of the stress, I focus on my diary.
Now, alone by day and night, I write much more.Of course, I have visitors
and male prisoners still come to the fence to chat. But sometimes, the days
and nights are long. I write more, not only because I am alone but because
I feel a sense of urgency in my writing.I don't want to forget anything
about my time here.
I cannot quite believe I have successfully hidden my phone since being
arrested. I made only one attempt to recharge it here.The loud bang wakened
Joy and Dewi. And the surge of electricity that ran through my body almost
killed me. So my phone is smuggled in and out by some very brave friends.
At night I can keep in touch with my family and friends. Previously I fed
information about our case to those campaigning for us on the outside. Now
I make arrangements for my free life, next week.
I have never been in another Indonesian prison,but I imagine the experience
in many would be much worse. The poor living conditions, bad diet, lack of
exercise and now being alone have all taken their toll. But throughout I
have tried to focus on the positive. A favoured word here is simpan. It
means store for later, and I have become every expert at that. I am
mentally ticking off the days to my release,but each day is the same as
those in the past seven weeks. I think about the ninth too often. Time
seems to have stopped and each minute, each hour stretches forever. So, I
continue to chat, to write and drink the delicious Acehnese coffee. My
release is imminent, but I don't believe it. And as I walk through the
front gates of the prison, I can imagine that a small part of my heart and
mind will remain here with my friends.
is a Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology,Monash University.