PALU, Indonesia: When a powerful 7.4-magnitude quake jolted the Indonesian city of Palu on Sep 28 last year, Mr Nanang Rukmana, the warden of the Palu Detention Centre, was faced with a terrible dilemma.
A rumbling sound was heard less than a hundred metres away from the prison, as the eight-storey Roa-Roa Hotel collapsed, resulting in a towering column of greyish dust.
The collapse, visible from inside the prison, caused panic among the 500 inmates incarcerated at the facility.
“Let us out! Let us out!” they shouted, Mr Rukmana recounted. Some of the inmates were banging their cell gates with trash bins and food trays.
Eventually, the guards let them out of their cells and gathered the entire prison population on a small basketball court in the middle of the facility. This did little to appease the inmates, who were alarmed by the fact that a tsunami warning had been issued.
Despite the fact that Indonesia, an archipelago which straddles along the “Ring of Fire”, faces a constant threat of natural disaster, the Indonesian Directorate General for Corrections does not have standardised procedures or guidelines in the event of a fire, earthquake or volcanic eruption.
Mr Rukmana told CNA that he had two choices that evening - let everyone out with the chance that some could run away and never return, or lock them in and risk the lives of 500 inmates and 70 guards.
“I did the former. I opened the prison door and let everyone go. The worst that could happen is me losing my job. But at the very least, I won’t be held responsible for anyone’s death,” he said.
PRISONERS EVENTUALLY RETURNED
Mr Rukmama's decision was made on compassionate grounds, and he did not expect all of them to honour their promise to return.
“We realised that the prisoners’ families might also be affected by the earthquake and some of the prisoners wanted to check on them. There was also a genuine fear that the prison was structurally unsafe. Even the guards were unsure if it was safe to stay inside the prison,” he said.
“So we gave the prisoners two weeks. Go and check on your family but if you don’t return in two weeks, we will declare you as fugitives,” he recalled telling the inmates.
While most rushed out of the gates, a group of 47 inmates decided to stay back.
“We had nowhere to go. We had no family in need of our help and attention. So we stayed and accompanied the guards day and night,” prisoner Nudin, who refused to divulge his last name, told CNA.
Nudin, who is serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence for embezzlement, said that since the prison was the only place with electricity and running water, those who left eventually returned as well, although some only came back to take a bath or recharge their phones.
Out of the 500 inmates, 105 never returned and are now fugitives being hunted by the authorities.
Elsewhere, the situation at other prisons in the quake-hit region was very different from that at the Palu Detention Centre. There were massive prison riots and jailbreaks reported at the penitentiaries in Petobo area and Donggala regency.
Mr Rukmama was relieved that the inmates under his watch did not resort to violence and create more trouble in the devastated area.
'WE WANT TO HELP PEOPLE'
The earthquake and subsequent tsunami which hit Palu and neighbouring Donggala, Sigi Biromaru and Parigi Moutong regencies took away the lives of 3,701 people, with 701 listed as missing. Locals believe there were many more deaths that went unreported.
“From the returning inmates we learned the true extent of the damage. We eventually told the warden that we want to help people in any way we can,” Nudin said.
Some of the prison guards were sceptical at first. They made the prisoners do menial work inside the detention facility like cooking and packing food.
But weeks after the disaster, attention towards the 40,000 quake victims started to dwindle and the thousands of aid workers, volunteers and soldiers, who earlier flew in from other parts of Indonesia, began to head home.
There was an acute shortage of volunteers, and the prisoners offered their assistance. Many were eager to help, and in the end, the prison chose the 47 who never left the prison on the day of earthquake to be volunteers.
As the initiator, Nudin assumed the role of the unofficial leader.
“We decided to organise ourselves. We looked for organisations which might need our help and areas which were largely untouched by aid,” he said.
The prisoners decided to call themselves “Bui Squad” (Prison Squad) and hastily designed a logo for their newly established group - a symbol of three people joining hands forming a circle.
They also came up with a uniform: orange vests bearing the Bui Squad logo and crest of the Indonesian Directorate General for Corrections, with “WBP Rutan Palu” (short for Prisoners of the Palu Detention Centre) emblazoned at the back.
In cooperation with the Indonesian Red Cross and various charity organisations, the Bui Squad helped distribute food, clear rubble and debris, erect tents and fix damaged infrastructure.
The prisoners were permitted to leave their cells during the day to help survivors and distraught refugees in remote corners of Palu, Donggala and Sigi. Back in the prison, they discussed their volunteering plans for the next day.
“I can see that the initiative changed them. These prisoners were convicted of theft, drugs and even murder. But they left their past behind and made their contribution to society. That’s what prisons are for - to rehabilitate criminals,” said Mr Andi Makkatareng, chief of the rehabilitation division at the prison.
“Equally important is society’s change in perception and attitude towards the prisoners because without their acceptance and support, the prisoners could go back to their old ways once they finish their sentences and re-enter their respective communities.”
'BRAVO PRISONERS. I SALUTE YOU'
The quake survivors were originally sceptical and wary of these mean-looking, heavily tattooed volunteers.
Mr Andi Fachrul, a prison official overseeing the Bui Squad initiative, said people initially felt uneasy upon learning that the people distributing food and erecting tents in their neighbourhood were convicts.
“Slowly, people started to realise that even though some of them are hardened criminals, there is still humanity in them. Deep down they are good people. Society just needs to give them a second chance," he said.
The prisoners were lauded on social media.
Facebook user Malahayati wrote: "They were branded as criminals and some, until today, are still being incarcerated at the Palu Detention Facility. But they too volunteered. They helped distribute rice for women who became heads of their family because of the earthquake, tsunami and liquefaction in Pasigala (Palu, Sigi and Donggala).”
“Bravo prisoners. I salute you.”
Local media also bestowed the Bui Squad with the moniker "convicts with the heart of an angel”.
“I hope the Bui Squad can inspire prisoners across Indonesia,” said Palu prison warden Mr Rukmana.
“The central government is looking to replicate this initiative and implement it elsewhere. The initiative made everyone realise that even prisoners can and want to participate in aid distribution and rehabilitation process during a disaster.”
SPECIAL REMISSION FOR THE BUI SQUAD
Nearly one year after the earthquake hit Palu, the Bui Squad is still active, helping to rebuild the devastated city.
Mr Rukmana said the Bui Squad recently restored damaged mosques and churches, and are now producing tens of thousands of bricks needed to build houses for those who lost their homes in the earthquake.
The prisoners are also engaged in community empowerment programmes, restoring damaged farmlands and building fish farms so victims can make a living and get back on their feet.
“As a token of appreciation for their achievements, we gave them special remissions. Because of the sentence cuts, 20 of the original members of the Bui Squad have now been released,” the prison warden said.
But for Bui Squad initiator Nudin, who still has two years to go before his release, the initiative was never about getting a remission.
“After hearing that so many were suffering because of the disaster, we just felt we had to do something,” he said.
Nudin recounted the heartwarming moment when the mother of one of the Bui Squad members came to see his son in the prison. The mother had not spoken to his son, who has been arrested and imprisoned multiple times, for years.
“She said she came as soon as she saw her son on television helping the victims. She became convinced that her son is now a changed man. And because of his mother’s support, the man gave up his life of crime,” Nudin recounted.
“That for me is the most rewarding thing about the initiative. Seeing that the initiative changed not only the people we helped, but also ourselves.”