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

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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 believe 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.

"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.

"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, 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.

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.

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