Australian Woman writes of her life in an Indonesian Jail
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 was over.

Banda Aceh

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.

Daily routine

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 coming day.

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.

Lesley McCulloch is a Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology,Monash University.

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All information is © Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff