The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A fire in a packed Indonesian prison killed 41 convicts. Many were trapped in their cells.

The deadly blaze near Jakarta underscores the risks of the country’s notoriously crowded prisons

Police officers inspect body bags at a hospital after a fire killed dozens of inmates at a Tangerang prison in Indonesia on Sept. 8. (Mast Irham/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A fire engulfed a packed prison block just outside Indonesia’s capital overnight, killing at least 41 inmates, many who were trapped in their cells.

Footage showed the charred walls and scorched metal doors of the rooms where prisoners were sleeping before the blaze reached them. Dozens suffered injuries, eight of them with severe burns, a local TV channel reported.

Firefighters rushed through the night to douse the billowing flames that tore through the Tangerang prison in Indonesia’s Banten province on the outskirts of Jakarta. Yellow and orange body bags lined the floor at a nearby hospital.

The prison block had been crammed with over three times more people than it could fit.

Officials said they had launched an investigation into what sparked the fire, though initial suspicions pointed to an electrical short circuit.

With the fire raging and the gates locked, “some cells couldn’t be opened,” Indonesia’s justice and human rights minister, Yasonna Laoly, said Wednesday. The facility’s wiring had not been upgraded since it was built in the 1970s, he was also cited as saying.

The death toll highlighted crowding in Indonesia’s prison system. Rika Aprianti, a spokeswoman for the ministry’s corrections department, said that when the fire broke out, 122 people were in detention in a space that was meant to hold 38.

Human Rights Watch estimated that the country’s facilities held 270,000 people last year — more than double their capacity — with many detained on drug charges. That leaves prisons particularly at risk of coronavirus outbreaks, it said.

Most of the dead on Wednesday had faced drug convictions. Two were foreign nationals, from South Africa and Portugal, the justice minister told a news conference.

Police officers, who deployed around the Tangerang prison to prevent a jailbreak, brought family members of the victims in to identify the bodies. Survivors were reportedly moved to a mosque temporarily.

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