The facility, to be located near Prey Sar prison, is aimed at improving the lives of18 children under the age of 6 who, a recent human rights group report says, suffer bleak conditions
Some of the young inmates at Prey Sar prison who will soon be attending the new daycare center.
Delivering a child from behind bars
Vzeang Hiheav, 24, a female prisoner at Prey Sar’s Correctional Centre Two prison who gave birth to a baby girl on April 7, described the birth of her second child as easier than that of her first, who was born before she was incarcerated. “When I gave birth to my first child, it was very difficult because I had to find money to pay the delivery fees,” she said.
“This time the prison director paid all of my expenses.” She added,
“During the pregnancy, I felt better than last time when I was outside.
I was provided with medicine and my health was checked every month. Vzeang Hiheav has been
imprisoned at Prey Sar since September 2008 after being convicted of robbery. For the duration of her 9-month sentence, her two children will be living with her behind bars. “I really pity my new daughter because when she opens her eyes the first thing she will see is her mother in prison, and all of her neighbours are prisoners,” she said. A widow, Vzeang Hiheav was born to a mother who was a garbage collector, a job she eventually took up herself. She has never received any formal education.
MAY TITTHARA AND ELEANOR AINGE ROY
FIFTEEN metres outside the grey walls of Prey Sar prison, a new daycare centre is currently being constructed to house 18 children who are incarcerated along with their mothers.
Prison policy stipulates that children under the age of 6 are allowed to live with their mothers if officials deem such an arrangement to be in the best interest of the child. This often occurs when there is no one besides the mother to care for the child. Once they reach age 7, however, they are forced to leave, often to be cared for by family members or NGOs.
A report released in March by the rights group Licadho concluded that incarcerated children lack the "nutrition, provisions and education vital for proper development. In addition, they are subjected to physical dangers when housed with offenders who have committed serious crimes and are also at risk of mistreatment by the guards".
As officials prepare to open the new daycare centre, funded by the NGO Association Mondiale des Amis de l'Enfance (AMADE), early next month, some of the children are reluctant to leave the confines of the prison walls.
Sok Mao, 6, who was born at Prey Sar, said she is scared of living apart from her mother. Without her mother's protection, she said, the guards will likely beat her and the other children.
[Jailed children] have lost their rights even though they did no wrong.
"I don't want to go to the new centre because there is nobody there to look after me, and the prison guards will beat me," she said.
Licadho researcher Kan Sopheak said this concern was likely unfounded.
"I have never had any reports of guards beating the children - only their mothers," he said, adding that Licadho staff would monitor the progress of both the mothers and their children after the centre opens.
The centre, equipped with six full-time staffers and a shower, will offer three meals a day as well as schooling. In addition, pregnant and breastfeeding women will be able to receive two meals per day as well as vocational training in the form of sewing and embroidery classes.
"This is going to be a huge project because we will follow the progress of the mothers and their children all the way through," said AMADE President Marie-Laurence Comberti.
"When the children reach the age to be released, we will ensure they find safe homes or accommodation and facilitate visits with their mothers in prison to ensure they don't break that important relationship. When the mothers are released, we will try to make their entry back into society as smooth as possible and start their lives over again. Otherwise a terrible cycle starts where they are released, fall into poverty, commit another crime and end up back in prison."
The mothers' view
Several mothers at Prey Sar said they were eager for the centre to open.
Keo Reaksmey, 39, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for prostitution, has a 4-year-old child living with her at Prey Sar.
Now that the centre is nearly completed, Keo Reaksmey said she is petitioning to have her remaining two children brought to the prison so they can take advantage of the centre. They currently live alone with their 84-year-old grandmother and have never received any formal education.
Chat Sineang, chief of Prey Sar prison, said he believed the centre was badly needed, as children living in prison encounter an array of challenges that set them apart from children on the outside.
Living in prison, he said, "is always the last option. We are very pleased about the new centre. It will keep the children away from bad prisoners who speak rude words to them and ensure they only hear good ideas from their teachers".
He added, "It may sound strange, but I think children who have grown up in prison are actually more intelligent than children from the outside. They spend all of their time with old people who are constantly teaching them, though I am not saying this is a preferable living situation."
For her part, Comberti said, "I just want to get those children out of there."
Mi Srey Phal, another woman incarcerated at Prey Sar, said she was grateful that the centre would finally give her son the opportunity for a normal childhood. She described the centre as one of the best things that has happened to her during the four years she has been incarcerated.
"Children here lack the freedom that children from the outside take for granted," she said. "They have lost their rights even though they did no wrong."
The construction of the centre is to cost US$30,000, Comberti said, adding that funding has been secured for two years of operations. Heng Hak, director of prisons for the Ministry of Interior, said the ministry was very much in favour of the centre and planned to monitor its progress and perhaps use it as an example to be emulated elsewhere in the Kingdom.