The Cambodian government is at last opening up its prison system as it struggles to provide adequate facilities for a growing population. Cambodia’s prison system is in crisis due to appalling levels of overcrowding, violence and disease. There are currently 11,000 guests of the state, which is not a high number when set against the kingdom’s total population of about 14m. But housing these offenders is proving to be beyond the current system’s remit
Half of them are incarcerated in four of the nation’s main prisons with the rest shared between the other 22 institutions across the country. Space is at a premium. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho), estimates that due to the rise in the prison population, inmates can get as little as 0.7 sq metres of room. In some of the larger correction centres there are as many as 100 prisoners to one cell with only a couple of wooden beds.
The Foreign Prisoner Support Service says that some of the worst overcrowding is at Kompong Thom, Banteay Meanchey and Sihanoukville, where the prison population has grown considerably since the last report in 1999.
Kompong Thom prison was built in 1900 by the French with only one wing having been restored since then. Originally designed to house 40 inmates according to the facility’s director, in 2001 it was reported to be housing 120.
Prison Fellowship, the only non-governmental organisation in Cambodia involved with prisoner reintegration, said: “A growing prison population means a more overcrowded prison, which leads to security risks, which leads to less exercise for prisoners which in turns leads to unrest.”
The good news, though, is that in response to criticism, the government is opening up its prisons to organisations such as Prison Fellowship, which is “able to provide services that the government cannot afford”.
Over the past 10 years there have been large-scale improvements within the existing structure of prison maintenance, construction and conditions. Some of these have included the building of new prisons and the closure of war-era prisons such as T3, which has now become a lively nightclub. There have also been changes to inmate care, visitation conditions and outside involvement.
It used to be common practice for the inmates to farm vegetables on specially designated grounds within the prison and to raise chickens or pigs. Now, though, the prisoners receive 75c (2,800 riel) a day for food.
Organisations such as Prison Fellowship, Licadho, Order of Malta (now replaced by CIOMAL) and Unesco have devised a programme for meeting the prisoners’ needs in a host of creative ways. Prison Fellowship has instituted a system of fortnightly “hope food” distribution to 1,300 inmates in one of the country’s largest prisons. CIOMAL distributes supplementary food and materials twice a month to Correctional Centre 2 and Takmao, which was one of the country’s oldest prisons but has been rebuilt by the Australian government as a model example of how a new facility should look. CC2 in Prey Sar can be considered a new prison and was built to house women and children.
The CIOMAL packages include enough rice to last for a couple weeks, cans of fish, multivitamin tablets and even cartons of milk for babies given to nursing mothers who are unable to breast feed. Cambodian law states that children are allowed to stay with their mothers within the prison walls until the age of six, after which they must find an alternative. In turn, Prison Fellowship operates a short-term emergency care home called Michael House for “at risk” children of prisoners.
There are currently 50 children nationwide living with their families in prison. They are not classified as inmates, so the full burden of care rests with the family. The prisoner is not given any extra food or drink no matter how many children she may have with her. In 2003, Licadho in partnership with other NGOs, provided food, funding and other necessary help for the children and pregnant mothers in prison.
Childbirth is in part taken care of by CIOMAL, which has funds available to pay for babies to be delivered in a good health facility that can also provide maternity care. The project is under the guiding hand of Heng Hak, the director general of the general department of prisons, who has encouraged greater NGO involvement in an effort to defuse the time bomb behind the country’s prison walls.