Unlike most expats in Cambodia who couldn’t make it home for Christmas this year, Chulsoo* has not told his family – including his two daughters – what’s keeping him in Phnom Penh.
That’s because Chulsoo, a Christian man in his 50s from South Korea, doesn’t want his family to know he’s locked in Prey Sar prison.
“I still haven’t told them I’m here,” he said during an interview with the Post inside the maximum security prison’s Correctional Center 1 last week.
Chulsoo has already spent one Christmas in Prey Sar, the biggest prison in the country, and knows today will be full of yearning for family he can’t be near and festivities he can’t enjoy.
“I’m Catholic, and Christmas is important to me,” the Korean man, dressed in standard-issue blue prison attire, said. “But we won’t be able to organise anything this year.”
In fact, apart from possible visits from prison support and church groups, Chulsoo, who has served 18 months of a four-year sentence for “commercial crime”, expected today to be just like any other.
There will be no visits from friends and family – like many foreign prisoners, Chulsoo has no loved ones in Cambodia – just long hours in a large dormitory where scores of men sleep on a hard floor.
“I don’t want to make negative points about being here,” Chulsoo said. “Prison is prison and you have to take the hardships. But it’s tough.”
Prey Sar, known as S-24 during the Khmer Rouge regime, has long had a reputation for overcrowding, substandard food and sporadic supplies of clean drinking water.
Although the Ministry of Interior’s prison department wouldn’t reveal the precise numbers of prisoners in Prey Sar yesterday – or say what percentage of inmates are foreign – Jeff Vize, an advocacy consultant for rights group Licadho, said CC1, where adult males are held, was at almost twice its capacity.
“The prison department generally uses two square metres per prisoner as its standard baseline in calculating capacity,” he said.
“International standards suggest that two square metres per person is acceptable only on a temporary basis for ‘crisis situations’. A better figure is somewhere between 3.5 and 5.5 square metres of accommodation space per person.
“If you use those numbers, the Prey Sar prisons could be filled somewhere around 400 per cent of capacity.”
Overcrowding had numerous negative effects on a prison’s resources, including food, which was already in short supply and of poor quality, Vize said.
“Think of a prison’s resources as a pie: food, water, recreation space, visiting time, fresh air, medical care, programs – these resources are all available in limited, finite quantities. As more people are crammed into a prison, the pieces of the pie get smaller.”
Shiro*, 30, a Japanese man who is serving a sentence for drug trafficking, is fortunate to have a wife who treks to the outskirts of Phnom Penh each day to give him food she has cooked herself.
“I never eat in prison. It’s just really bad food,” he said.
When the Post visited Prey Sar, wives and children were delivering food of their own.
They handed over their phones to guards, raised their arms to be patted down and filed into a long room where their loved ones waited for them through a window on the other side of the wall.
One foreign inmate whose family or friends won’t be among visitors at Prey Sar today is John*, a South African who has spent three years in prison for a crime he won’t disclose.
Christmas has both religious and cultural significance for John, who is Christian; it’s a day to celebrate God and spend time with family – two things that will be difficult in prison.
“Last year, we asked the prison director to have Christmas here,” he said. “We asked for special food like cake and we got it, but it was only in our rooms. There was no gathering or anything.”
With “nothing special” planned this year, John will spend most of his day thinking about his three children in South Africa, with whom he exchanges hand-written letters and sometimes speaks to on the phone.
“Being without family is just horrible,” he said.
Encouragement and hope
Without friends and family in Cambodia, foreign prisoners live lonely existences.
Prison Fellowship Cambodia, an inter-denominational Christian NGO, is one group working to make prison life more bearable for inmates, regardless of religion, and bring more hope to foreigners who are spending Christmas inside.
“We have a lot of churches we work with,” executive director Adam Hutchinson said. “They will run programs – they’re never just for Christian prisoners . . . and they’re not evangelical.”
In the lead-up to Christmas, Prison Fellowship had been meeting prisoners in Prey Sar and elsewhere and working with churches to plan meals and entertainment for today.
Different prisons had different programs, Hutchinson said, depending on how much funding came from overseas institutions, including church groups.
“In some years, we have been able to have everyone come out and have food and packages for them all.”
Koy Boun Sorn, director-general of the department of prisons at the Ministry of Interior, said he would allow prisoners in Prey Sar today to “take a day off” from their undisclosed “usual duties” to spend time with their loved ones.
“December 25 is not a public holiday, so our prison staff will be working as normal, but for foreign prisoners we allow them to . . . celebrate or do something with their families in prison.”
Prey Sar officials regularly allowed prisoners to celebrate religious and cultural events, Boun Sorn added.
“We also allow NGOs who work with Christians to come and do something.”
Despite the planning that went into feeding prisoners and providing entertainment on Christmas Day, Prison Fellowship’s visits to prisoners were simply aimed at giving them basic support and encouragement, Hutchinson said.
“For foreign prisoners, we will provide a special visit on Christmas Day. But it really is quite casual. It just gets them out of their cells,” he said.
“For Christians, they get to celebrate a significant event. For them to be able to celebrate a meaningful event gives them hope. God has not forgotten them just because they are in prison.
“The biggest thing in prison [for everyone] is just to have encouragement and hope,” he said.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons
To contact the reporters on this story: Shane Worrell at email@example.com
May Titthara at firstname.lastname@example.org