Why Inmates Set Free After The Indonesia Quake Are Returning To Their Prison Prisoners at the Donggala District Prison rioted as the earthquake and tsunami hit last month. The warden opened the doors — but now, after checking on their families, many inmates have come back.
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Why Inmates Set Free After The Indonesia Quake Are Returning To Their Prison

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Why Inmates Set Free After The Indonesia Quake Are Returning To Their Prison

Why Inmates Set Free After The Indonesia Quake Are Returning To Their Prison

Why Inmates Set Free After The Indonesia Quake Are Returning To Their Prison

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/656194921/656270651" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The Donggala District Prison was torched by rioting prisoners one day after the double earthquake and tsunami disasters on Sept. 28. Donggala is close to the epicenter of the earthquake, and rattled prisoners wanted a way out. Noele Mage/NPR hide caption

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Noele Mage/NPR

The Donggala District Prison was torched by rioting prisoners one day after the double earthquake and tsunami disasters on Sept. 28. Donggala is close to the epicenter of the earthquake, and rattled prisoners wanted a way out.

Noele Mage/NPR

It's not every day you see freed prisoners walk back into the arms of their jailers. But about 80 inmates from Indonesia's Donggala District Prison are doing just that.

They assembled this past week on the patchy grass of the prison grounds and counted off for prison head Safiuddin.

The diminutive warden's powers of persuasion worked for this group, but not for all of the 360 prisoners who had been serving time in the old jailhouse when an earthquake and tsunami hit Indonesia on Sept. 28.

Donggala lies close to the epicenter of the earthquake, where the shaking was the most violent. Rattled prisoners rioted to get out.

The disasters killed more than 2,000 people across the country. Thousands more are believed to be missing, and the government says it will halt its search for any more victims starting Thursday. The true death toll may never be known.

Warden Safiuddin says that as tensions escalated inside the prison, he pleaded for patience but was met by a "band of inmates" who "could not be controlled."

First, one cellblock was torched. Then prisoners set fire to the football field out back. After that, they returned to the prison again to burn another cellblock.

Safiuddin, head of the Donggala District Prison, addresses the returning inmates assembled in the prison yard. He exhorts them to "encourage your fellow inmates to turn themselves in," and tells the inmates who have freely come back to "serve your sentence, and live out your life without worry." Noele Mage/NPR hide caption

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Noele Mage/NPR

"Some were wearing ninja masks and shouting to attack the prison officers," Safiuddin says. The inmates devolved into "anarchy," he adds.

He decided to throw open the doors and let them out, rather than risk "all sorts of casualties."

"It was a tough decision," Safiuddin says — one he made out of concern for the safety of his officers whose lives were under threat.

Safiuddin acknowledges the escapees were animated mostly out of worry for their families, and rumors. Word had spread that inmates at other prisons had already been released to check on their loved ones.

On Sept. 30, the day after the fire, Safiuddin addressed an emotional gathering of about 260 prisoners who had stayed.

At Donggala District Prison, a cellblock and a football field were torched before prison officials decided to let the inmates leave. Noele Mage/NPR hide caption

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Noele Mage/NPR

"I cried, the prisoners cried," he recalls.

He excoriated them, saying, "We are all in trouble now." The rioting and burning had made the prison uninhabitable. He told them they were all free to go and visit their families, on the condition they come back and regularly report on their status.

About a quarter of the prisoners check back every other day, as they await assignment to another prison.

On this day, Safiuddin asks these self-reporting inmates, "Are you ready to be transferred?"

The inmates shout back: "Ready!"

The warden is part preacher, part tough-love coach. "Encourage your fellow inmates to turn themselves in," he says. "Serve your sentence, and live out your life without worry," he exhorts.

The Donggala High Court Judge is on hand with a sterner message to the inmates: "Don't think if you run, you can hide," he warns.

Donggala is a medium-security prison. There are no murderers or rapists. In fact, there are no felons at all. These morning assemblies are studies in casualness, with prison guards standing around swapping cigarettes with the returning inmates who have been convicted of minor offenses. Small-time corruption is a common one.

Mohammad Taris, 49, was convicted of corruption. As a village chieftain, he falsified receipts for item such as chairs and kindergarten toys, but now says he's determined to "obey the law, and with a clear conscience and without pressure from anyone." He plans to report back to the prison even though he's free. Noele Mage/NPR hide caption

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Noele Mage/NPR

Mohammad Taris, 49, was convicted of corruption. As a village chieftain, he falsified receipts for item such as chairs and kindergarten toys, but now says he's determined to "obey the law, and with a clear conscience and without pressure from anyone." He plans to report back to the prison even though he's free.

Noele Mage/NPR

Mohammad Taris, a stocky 49-year-old with a quick smile, was the village chief when he falsified receipts for things such as "chairs and kindergarten toys."

Mohammad says he has checked in with his grown sons, and is determined to serve out the remaining seven months of his sentence.

Given the chance for freedom, most people would take it and never look back. Not Mohammad.

"I want to obey the law. Obey the law," he repeats for effect. "With a clear conscience, and without pressure from anyone, I will report here."

Prisoner Arifudin, 49, said he dutifully reports back in because "it was better to fully serve" his sentence. He has one month left on his prison sentence for underage marriage.

A female self-reporting prisoner, Lili Setioningsih, was convicted of stealing from the school where she worked. The 37-year old mother says that a sea of mud carried her house away in the district of Sigi. Her children have been moved to her parents' home, far away.

Inmate Lili Setioningsih, 37, was convicted of theft, for stealing money from the school where she taught and served as treasurer. She says it's "all up to the prison warden" whether she can alleviate the trauma of losing her home in the quake and having her children moved four hours further away. He has agreed to transfer her to a prison near her children to serve out the rest of her sentence. Noele Mage/NPR hide caption

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Noele Mage/NPR

She's appealed to the warden to ease her "trauma." She wants him to "find a prison where I can serve out my time closer to my children. It's all up to him," she says.

The warden, who is listening to our conversation, leans in and quietly assures her: "It will be done."

Perhaps a fresh start in the making, from the ruins of Indonesia's twin disasters.