The fire broke out overnight, some time between 1 and 2am, a spokesperson for the prison department of the law and human rights ministry said. “The cause is under investigation,” Rika Aprianti was quoted as saying by news agency Reuters.
Ms Aprianti said several of the inmates were there for drug-related offences. She, however, did not say how many people were present when the fire broke out, but confirmed the prison was overcrowded.
The block where the fire broke out had the capacity for 122 people, she said. It was built to hold only 38 people. The facility was still being evacuated as of 9am local time, Ms Aprianti said.
Footage shared by local media showed flames engulfing the prison’s detention centre, and later photos showed officials carrying orange body bags out to a waiting ambulance. Some of the bodies were unidentifiable because they were badly charred, a doctor from the Tangerang General Hospital told Reuters.
The prison in Tangerang – which is an industrial and manufacturing hub in the Banten province and is roughly 40 kilometres away from Jakarta – housed more than 2,000 inmates, much more than the prison’s 600-person capacity, according to government data as of September.
“We’re working together with relevant authorities to look into the causes of the fire and of course formulating prevention strategies so that severe catastrophes like this won’t happen again,” Indonesian law and human rights minister Yasonna Laoly said in a statement after visiting the prison.
“Some rooms couldn’t be opened,” as the fire raged, the minister said.
Two of those who died in the fire were foreign nationals, from South Africa and Portugal, Mr Laoly said.
“The initial suspicion is this was because of an electrical short circuit,” police spokesman Yusri Yunus told news channel Metro TV. The prison’s electrical wiring had not been upgraded since 1972, Mr Laoly said.
Overcrowded prisons are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia, where the emphasis is on incarceration instead of rehabilitation, according to experts.
“At the Tangerang prison there are only five guards working one shift to guard a prison with 2,079 people,” Leopold Sudaryono, a criminologist and PhD candidate at the Australian National University told Reuters.
There were 13 guards on duty at the time the fire broke out, according to Ms Aprianti.
This was the deadliest fire incident witnessed in Indonesia after one that broke out at a fireworks factory in 2017, killing at least 30 people, that also occurred in Tangerang.