With Phnom Penh's T3 prison, pictured below, slated for imminent demolition, Phelim
Kyne trawls through the National Archives for a glimpse at the history of the
century-old French Colonial lock-down and the lives of the thousands of inmates who
were detained there.
There's a palpable sense of urgency in the actions of the small teams of workmen
busily dismantling saleable pieces of wood and scrap iron from Phnom Penh's old T3
prison on St 154 behind Wat Ounalom.
Just ten days after T3's last prisoners were bussed to a new prison in Svay Pray
commune in Dangkao district, the prison structure is being methodically gutted, its
contents subject to a liberation its former occupants could only dream about.
When scavengers have taken all there is to take, the bulldozers of wrecking crews
will render T3's forbidding high walls, barbed wire fences and guard towers into
a pile of colonial-era rubble destined to be the site of the latest Sokimex development.
When T3 falls to the tender mercies of Sokimex demolition crews Phnom Penh will lose
one of the largest and most distinctive products of French architectural design remaining
in the city.
On Nov 12, 1901, the office of the French Resident Superior du Cambodge called for
the construction of a new Prison du Protectorat to house the growing numbers of non-Cambodians
falling foul of French law in the Kingdom.
For reasons of convenience, the French authorities called for the prison "to
be constructed behind the [functioning] Prison du Protectorat" located on the
site of present-day T3.
By 1916, the two prisons had merged into one large single entity known as the Prison
Centrale, with distinct internal divisions separating Cambodian and non-Cambodian
"[La Prison du Protectorat] housed individuals who had been tried under French
law and [la Prison Cambodgienne] was for those tried under Cambodian law," explained
Joel Montague, a former long-time American resident of Cambodia and a historian of
Cambodia's French colonial structures. "At the head of each was a European with
a deputy who was a Khmer."
Records of the new prison's first year of operation offer a telling glimpse of turn
of the century Cambodian criminality.
Inmates sentenced to serve time in the new prison were convicted on charges ranging
from "simple and grand theft" to more enigmatic involvement in "abuse
of trust" and "complicity in buffalo theft" cases.
A 1939 register of the prison's inmates reveals a prison population of "adult
males, minors, soldiers and women" whose status was that of "accused",
"on appeal", or "convicted". A separate category existed for
According to Montague, those sentenced in Cambodia to life imprisonment during the
period of the French Protectorate faced an even more daunting locale for their incarceration:
the dreaded Vietnamese prison island referred to by French authorities as Poulo-Condore.
Until the abolition of capital punishment in 1904, the Prison Centrale also served
as Cambodia's execution grounds, where those convicted of "capital crimes"
were beheaded by a guillotine that was shuttled between Hanoi and Phnom Penh to mete
out the death penalty.
Daily life in the prison involved a predictably harsh routine in which the majority
of prisoners were channeled into forced labor projects both inside and outside the
Prison documents note that only "debtors, smugglers and those condemned by tribunals
in France or have previously escaped" were automatically excluded from prison
Along with work in the prison workshops, inmates were also tapped as a source of
free labor for colonial infrastructure projects. "A large number of the prisoners
were sent to build a road in the mountains, no doubt the road to Bokor," Montague
told the Post.
Comforts were few in a prison day that began with a 5:30 am "reveille"
and ended with a 5:30pm evening meal.
Prison regulations of 1902 stipulate that "smoking and the chewing of betel
nut" were strictly forbidden, while visits from family members were limited
to thirty minute periods between Thursday and Saturday.
Hygiene conditions were apparently not considered a priority, with Sunday the sole
day when prisoners were permitted both to shower and receive a change of clothes.
Daily food rations were precisely calculated to provide only the barest subsistence
diet, with prisoners' families expected to supplement prison meals.
A 1948 prison ration list specifies a daily ration for inmates consisting of "700
grams of rice, 200 grams of fish, 150 grams of vegetables, one lemon and two peppers"
per inmate. Seasonings were scant - the daily ration for nuoc nam (Vietnamese fish
sauce) was one litre per 70 inmates.
A written complaint made by inmates of the prison in November 1916 to the prison
director illustrates that even the meager official rations were subject to the depredations
of corrupt prison guards.
"It is our duty to inform you of illegal acts occurring within the prison without
your knowledge," the complaint reads. "It is heard that prison guards are
holding back parts of our rations in order to sell them to others...as a result prisoners
are not getting enough to eat."
An attached note from the Resident Superior du Cambodge directs prison authorities
to send an investigation team to verify the prisoners' complaint "during the
prison meal times."
Understandably, the combination of inadequate food, poor hygiene and intense physical
labor took a huge physical toll on the prison inmates.
As early as July 28, 1903 a letter from the Chef de la Service Judiciare en l'Indo-Chine
warns that "Sanitary conditions at the prison in Phnom Penh are less than satisfying
... beriberi [is]causing a great toll in prisoners' lives."
The threat of illness and epidemics within the prison lingered to as late as Sept
18, 1918, when Gendarme Theon, chief guard of the prison, submitted a request for
"the construction of an isolation ward and septic system" to reduce the
risk of the spread of "cholera and pestilence" among the inmates.
By the time the 1921-1922 Annual Report of Le Prison Centrale was produced, sanitary
conditions had improved to the point that the number of deaths in the prison had
been reduced by 50% over the previous year.
The report points out that the eight fatalities that had occurred in that period
were all Cambodian nationals, leading the report writer to suggest without a hint
of irony that "...prison work has a certain effect on the organisms of Cambodians."
More worryingly, the report notes that although the physical health of the inmates
had improved over the past year, unspecified "psychological illnesses"
afflicted 530 of the prison's 1000 inmates.
Those prisoners who violated the regulations of the prison were subject to punishments
that compounded the stresses of food scarcity, fatigue and illness.
The 1938-1939 Daily Records of the prison note inmate infractions of the rules and
the sanctions they incurred.
- April 5, 1938: Captain Nguyen Phoan sentenced to thirty days solitary confinement
in leg irons for "brutally beating another inmate without plausible reason."
- June 28, 1938: Two prisoners are sentenced to 10 days solitary confinement and
rations of "dry rice" for "beating on the door of their cell."
- Nov 24, 1939: Inmate Co Say, #13356 sentenced to ten days in solitary confinement
in leg irons as a result of "a dispute with a guard."
- Dec 18, 1939: Inmate Tech Con, #13279 sentenced to thirty days solitary confinement
in leg irons for "refusing to work."
Physical abuse of prison inmates was by no means limited to prison authorities.
A 1927 document from the prison director asks for "the separation of minors
and debtors from the general prison population" due to what he referred to as
"malicious promiscuity among the inmates."
Perhaps as a consequence of the brutality of life in the prison and its suspected
role in generating "political disturbances" the Gouverneur General de l'Indo-Chine
in Hanoi was moved to voice the need to extend France's "mission civilisatrice"
to within the prison walls.
In a 1937 directive to "the prison directors of Cambodia", the French official
urged prison officials to "apply prison rules fairly and firmly ... but also