How fuggin AWFUL to hear about the executions of these two men, and the others who were wiped out needlessly today in Indonesia. Don’t people go to jail in order to think about what they’ve done? And hadn’t these guys thought enough? Ugh.
“The killings were carried out at 12.30am, local time, on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan off the coast of Java.” RIP, sweet souls.
I was lucky enough to meet them when I was in Bali writing my second book for HarperCollins, and both were very calm, peaceful men who were doing great things to redeem themselves in Kerobokan prison. In their honour, I’m posting the chapter about their work in the prison, and the Mule Jewels project right here. May their memories live on.
The guards were peeling a bunch of mangosteens when I entered Kerobokan Prison but as I went to walk past they stopped what they were doing, wiped the juice from their fingers and the smiles from their faces and tried to look official. Joanna Witt walked straight past and I was told to sit in front of the guards and wait for permission to enter.
Joanna, I think I mentioned, is coordinating a project beyond the scary gates aimed at teaching the prisoners silversmith skills. I went along for the day to meet Si Yi Chen, who is one of the Bali Nine currently serving a life sentence for being a drug mule. The silversmith program itself is now his day job, and along with eight others he spends every day in a special room inside the prison from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. making jewellery for a line he calls Mule Jewels.
I smiled at the guards from my hard wooden seat, noticing they were all wearing huge, spotless black and white boots like something from an army clothing commercial. One of them offered me a mangosteen so I peeled it and ate it as they all eyed me suspiciously. I decided I had better flirt to ensure I got in, so I spoke in Indonesian and batted my naked eyelashes.
Prior to my visit I was told to make myself look as unattractive as possible. This isn’t really something I have to be told lately, but respectful clothing is encouraged in Kerobokan because of the large component of Muslim prisoners and staff … and also because some of these men have not had sex in years.
Wearing the wrong clothing and receiving a few cat-calls is not, however, the biggest concern when it comes to heading into a building full of criminals. As we chatted in the car on the way to the prison, Joanna reminisced about a time she used to enjoy the odd conversation with a tailor who’d work sewing the guard’s uniforms in the silversmith’s room. One day, he climbed onto the roof with the hope of escaping and after he was caught and relocated to another prison, Joanna found out that this chatty guy (who she’d assumed was a drug trafficker, like 90 per cent of the prisoners in Kerobokan) was actually doing time for murdering his friend. The unlucky victim’s head was found on a beach in Gianyar, while the rest of him was found in Kuta.
In a prison you never know who you’re talking to or sharing a cell with. Some people in Kerobokan, if they’re extremely poor and can’t buy their way into anything better, are forced to share cells with up to thirty other people.
The heavy metal doors swung open and a little man in a bad batik shirt ushered me through. Handing my mangosteen peel to the guards I waved them goodbye and followed him through a series of walkways, taking it all in. Kerobokan Prison is a scary place. If your soul’s not crushed automatically by the dark foreboding walls and crumbling paint, you’re trying not to shiver at the deceivingly cheerful outdoor grounds with their tennis court and temple, and tower block reading SUPER MAXIMUM SECURITY, surrounded by open drains. It doesn’t smell nice. Men stare when you walk past. I was glad to reach the silversmith room.
Joanna used to buy jewellery in Bali and sell it in Japan, mostly in the Tokyo subways. For the last eighteen years, however, she’s been an active member of the Ubud community and the work at Kerobokan started in February of 2010, basically as a way to help rehabilitate the prisoners and to keep them out of trouble. The effort is funded by the parents of the prisoners involved and partially by Joanna herself.
It looked like any other workshop. Shabby pink paint clung to the walls, a painting of distant palm trees displayed a Bali the inmates never get to see, and a kettle was boiling away in the corner. The prisoners were all chain smoking. One young girl was welding with a blowtorch.
Si Yi smiled and stood up with his hand out for me to shake, and as I shook it he offered me some green tea; proper green tea from a bag his parents brought him over from China. It was probably the best tea I’ve had in Bali.
Born in 1985, Si Yi looks older and appears wiser than his years, hardly surprising considering his lifestyle. In 2005 he was arrested at the Melasti Hotel in Kuta with three others and his share of a total of 8.3 kilograms of heroin in a suitcase. Whereas his life was changed forever, it hasn’t necessarily all been a negative experience. He’s since discovered a talent and a passion he never knew was in him — Si Yi’s line of Mule Jewels is gorgeous. He practises Taoism and as such, every piece he makes has a specific meaning.
‘When I make them, I send them out into the world with positive messages,’ he told me as we went through some of the silver charms they’ve made, which he keeps in a little drawer at his work desk until they can be sent to the shops. Joanna’s Yin stores, which are scattered throughout Ubud, and the Ocean shop on Gili Trawangan sell these Mule Jewels, so keep that in mind when your magpie eyes go scouting for precious pieces in Bali. You could be helping these guys.
Everyone on the program works on commission. All proceeds go right back to the program and to the prisoners themselves who use the money to help make life a bit more bearable behind bars.
When she’s not at the prison itself, Joanna is helping out with marketing. I decided to get a little gecko bracelet made to remind me of Monet and I sat with one of the guys as he sketched it from scratch. Apparently, it will be ready in under a week — a personalised piece made by the prisoners, which will not only be a beautiful piece of jewellery but will also, in some small way, contribute to the life of these prisoners. Without the funds to buy their own food from a snack shop, they are supposed to live on five pieces of sugary bread, a quarter of a papaya and one unripe banana per day. And that’s just for the foreigners. The Indonesians get rice three times a day with a finger-full of vegetables and the occasional egg.
The biggest problem with the silversmith program, Joanna says, is motivating the prisoners. When she first started working with Si Yi, she’d arrive at Kerobokan to find him still asleep. When he’d finally get around to joining her, he’d be quite depressed and commented a lot on the guilt he was feeling about putting his long-suffering parents through such a bad time.
After several months Joanna had had just about enough of this. She told him outright, ‘Hey, I’m here to help!’ She told him yeah, sure, other things in his life were shit and monotonous and boring, but she was there to change things for the better and if he wanted her to keep on coming, he’d better pull his act together.
The next time she arrived for a session, Si Yi was up, ready and waiting, and from that point onwards he set about putting 100 per cent of his energy into learning the craft:
‘When I get out, I want to work with silver,’ he told me as he carefully put the jewels back into their little bags. And he definitely will. You can tell by talking to him that Si Yi is immensely proud of what he’s achieved so far in this little pink room with a view of barbed-wire fences and broken glass. Before the Bali Nine drama saw him being sentenced to life in what’s dubbed Hotel Kerobokan (because you can check out anytime but you can never leave), Si Yi used to work in a mobile phone shop.
I also met Myuran Sukumaran, another member of the Bali Nine, who is doing a lot of good things inside the prison while he serves his time on death row. He showed me the room where they create and print designs on T-shirts, which they sell. He also showed me the art room, in which at least five prisoners were kneeling on the floor, covered in paint and lost in their creations. Most of them were painting surreal images of twisted bodies and Dali-esque melting items, men and women with long eerie limbs. The many ghosts and spirits were perhaps manifestations of their troubled minds (it’s no secret that drugs are a big issue inside Kerobokan), although Si Yi told me about a ghostly figure who stands on top of the Super Maximum Security tower at night, eternally searching for a way out.
So what does Joanna think of Schapelle Corby’s book, and others that have been written about life inside the prison? Well, actually, she doesn’t think very highly of those who’ve penned ‘largely fabricated’ memoirs about what it’s like to live there. Often, she says, they’re written to satiate the desires of a hungry media and the prisoners don’t benefit at all while they’re still inside. She said to Si Yi one day: ‘If you want to be famous, don’t be famous for being an imprisoned drug trafficker. Be famous for being an amazing jewellery designer.’ Her advice seems to have stuck.
‘I’m so proud of Si Yi and the group, and what they’ve accomplished,’ she told me on the way back to Ubud, with the rolling Bali plains looking even more beautiful in the context of the freedom they represent. ‘It’s pretty hard to avoid the negative things that are happening in the jail, but this group is producing some amazing designs and pieces on a daily basis. I take my hat off to them. They are some of the most changed and successful people I have ever met.’
I know none of us can truly imagine what it must be like to live behind bars anywhere, especially in Bali. But the next time we read something terrible about life inside the Kerobokan Prison, perhaps we’ll also think about the good stuff that’s happening in the same building, thanks to people like Joanna.