Cambodia’s 10,892 prisoners held in 24 prisons have to turn to family or NGOs when mistreated in prison, while the government makes no serious promise toward change. Human Rights workers stress that even convicts should not be deprived of their human rights.
PHNOM PENH – There is only one visit a week from a local NGO to Prey Sar’s Correctional Centre 2, and Pov Chanthy, a 38-year-old female inmate with a 2-year-old daughter, always welcomes it enthusiastically.
As one of the 50 female prisoners in one room, with mats rolled up so that everyone can move during the day, Chanthy confronts poor prison living conditions with an overcrowded cell, starchy food with no nutritional value, and a notoriously corrupt system in the prison.
“I don’t eat enough and things here are three times more expensive than outside, so only those with money live without worries,” she says.
The 38-year-old was sentenced to 20 years for allegedly dealing drugs. She has spent the last two years behind bars and already wishes she had never gotten near where drugs were being raided.
“My life is so difficult here–I want to cry every day,” Chanthy, pale, says in the prison.
Such a story is typical among Cambodian inmates who are provided two meals per day worth 1,500 Riel (38 cents), including soap and other living necessities.
The Ministry of Interior has allocated the Prison Department 1,500 Riel (38 cents) per prisoner per day since 2006, yet it is obvious that “this small amount can barely cover the inmate’s meals and it is the prisoner who ultimately suffers,” says the recent report by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, Licadho.
“We have proposed to the government that they improve the prison system by increasing the food budget for prisoners,” says Svay Thy. “But the government and the prison department only say they will do something.”
The government’s low income tax and lax rule in practical justice to prisoners are real obstacles for prison system reformation, stresses Svay Thy.
But Licadho is also apprehensive about another obvious issue. One fifth of all the inmates in Cambodia, that is 2,793 prisoners, are still remanded, spending several years waiting for being sentenced, which has prompted rights groups to be concerned with justice in the country.
Lack of Key Standards
Every day, they are allowed less break time to go outside their cell in order to stretch their arms and legs, explains Svay Thy, prison supervisor of Licadho. With a doubling up in cell occupancy in old prison buildings, each inmate is allowed little space to sleep and there have always been complaints about lack of nutrition, water, and break time outside the cells, according to Licadho.
“Even though prisoners have been sentenced to jail, they still have the right to live decently. Only their freedom is confined to one place according to basic human rights,” explains Svay Thy.“Besides what the human rights universal declaration states, the prison regulations and the country’s constitution state that whoever you are and wherever you are from, your basic human rights still remain and can’t be deprived.”
This prison activist continues saying that compared to others countries Cambodian prisons still lack some important elements regarding the accommodation, break-time outside the cell, and vocational training for prisoners.
The rate of torture and physical and sexual assault is declining, however he warns that prisoners’ rights will be more violated if the prison conditions deteriorate.
Already, the lack of food and other facilities such as water and medical care in prisons cause prisoners to depend on their better-off relatives to visit them once a week, so that the family can bring in supplies. In contrast, poor prisoners who account for 80 percent of the population in prisons, have to live on what the state provides. With food and fuel prices rising, many get fewer visits from their families.
Like other poor inmates, Chanthy gets one visit from her disabled husband every two or three months.
“It would be unfair to turn to my husband when he can hardly support himself,” says Chanthy.
While corruption may be frowned upon, it is often a saving grace for prisoners who can afford to buy the food that they need to survive from the guards, observers from Licadho say. Bribing prison guards is common practice among visitors for the prisoners’ survival, a Licadho report released in January 2007 points out.
Mong Kim Heng, the director of Prey Sar Correction Centre 1,25 km north of Phnom Penh, plays down the accusations of bribery, instead saying that “to give a little money to prison guards is a normal and generous offer from visitors.”
But, the acknowledgment of “little gifts” by this official is in contradiction to the reports of visitors who were refused entry into some prisons in late October this year unless they paid between 25 to 50 dollars in exchange for visitation rights.
Prison not home
Most of the prisons are in a deteriorating state, with dilapidated buildings and do not provide any vocational training. Only three prisons which were turned into national “model” correctional centres, have agri-industrial programs and job training.
“Prisons located in Phnom Penh receive more attention than prisons in the provinces, where the provincial prisons are largely ignored. Inmates’ cells in the provinces are close together, which causes fear of physical abuse to the weak, especially to women and children,” Svay Thy says.
Prisoners in the model correctional centres have opportunities and more privileges than others with access to agri-industrial programs, so they have a chance to leave their cells for some exercise and fresh air, Svay Thy says.
“Staying in all the time can cause exhaustion and depression.” But the government officials point out and accept the hard conditions of the Cambodian inmates and say prisoners are treated the same everywhere.
“We see all the problems here in the prison, but if the prison is like home, it’s not a prison at all,” says Mong Kim Heng, director at Correction Centre 1. “Normally, no luxury of good food or rooms can be found in a prison.”
Chab Si Neang, director of Correctional Centre 2, agrees with Mong Kim Heng. “I admit that the cells are very narrow and the 1,500 Riel-meals can’t provide sufficient nutrition but this is because Cambodia has been tightening its laws and we are discussing the problems,” says Chab Si Neang, claiming that more people have to cram into a tiny cell as a punishment for the crime they committed.