Bora was filled with shame after being released from prison.
little more than a boy when he was locked up, driven to crime by an insatiable
drug addiction. He even had his mother chain him to a bed, but eventually broke
Bora (not his real name) did his time, but once out of prison, he
withdrew and refused help until his mother dragged him to Blue Gate House,
believed to be Cambodia's first drop-in rehabilitation center for released
A few weeks later, he is set to start a mechanics course run
by the organization by the end of this month.
Blue Gate House is a
halfway house located just off the road linking Phnom Penh and Cambodia's
biggest prison, Prey Sar, the collective name for CC1 (holding male prisoners)
and CC2 (women and minors). Blue Gate was set up three months ago by Prison
Fellowship Cambodia (PFC), the local arm of an international Christian NGO, to
help people who often have little more than the clothes on their backs and
moto-taxi fare to take them away from the prison.
To the casual
observer, Blue Gate House is a typical urban single-fronted, two-story building
in Stung Meanchey commune a few kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh. But behind
the blue steel gate that gives the center its name, recently released prisoners
receive medical check-ups or meals, counseling and family mediation, or help
finding emergency accommodation. Others are matched up with in-house or NGO
training programs to help them develop skills to use in the
The place is painted in cheery colors but is deliberately
sparsely furnished to discourage the convicts from getting too comfortable. The
NGO's vision is to transform the lives of prisoners, former prisoners and their
families. At the very least, it works to ensure their basic needs are met.
Services are available to all former prisoners, regardless of their past.
"The first question I am [often] asked is 'What's the worst thing
someone has done?'" says Linda Chisholm, country director of PFC. "[But] I don't
think I have ever asked a prisoner what they were in prison for."
Prison Fellowship International is a Christian organization, it is not
evangelical, says Chisholm. "I'm a committed Christian, but I'm not a Bible
Assistance begins before a prisoner's release with one-on-one
counseling, which identifies prisoners in need of further help. A three-month
life skills program for soon-to-be released inmates at Kandal provincial prison
has been launched, and planning is underway for a similar six-month course for
women and juveniles at CC2.
For people accustomed to being told what to
do, the first step is to sit down and talk with released prisoners.
one listens to people in Cambodia, and especially prisoners," says Lisa Cescon,
co-leader of Blue Gate House. "We are saying to them, one on one, they are of
Most prisoners return to their families after being released, but
others need assistance to reconnect. One man who came to Blue Gate House after
his release hadn't seen his wife in 10 years. Within a day staff had tracked her
down and she took him back.
But not all family reunions are that easy.
Some of those rejected by immediate family, or unable to return to their
village, can be initially placed with their extended family. Family mediation is
available and prisoners are asked to enter into three-way partnerships with a
counselor and a mentor, usually a close relative such as their mother, an aunt
"It shows Blue Gate House whether they are committed or not,"
says Chisholm. "They have to prove that."
Once a commitment to reform has
been established, former prisoners can be considered for placement in an NGO
training program, or Blue Gate House's new post-release mechanics course. "One
of the problems here is if you give something for free, people don't bother
turning up," says Cescon.
Sometimes, having a skill that is considered
useful in society makes all the difference for released prisoners trying to
rebuild their lives. One young man was at first rejected by his parents after
his release but embraced by them after he began developing a vocation.
think that [training] is one way to heal the rift between the community and the
prisoner," says Chisholm.
For now, Blue Gate House is reaching out to all
prisoners released from CC1, CC2 and Kandal prison, but the potential exists for
expansion into other provinces. The drop-in center currently employs nine
Cambodian staff, including three male counselors. While more than 96 percent of
prisoners are male, the agency is also trying to recruit a female counselor. The
lessons learnt now will help shape more constructive rehabilitation programs in
"Probation services will eventually be run by the
government," says Chisholm, adding that training local staff is part of a
long-term goal to integrate reintegration services into the prison
After three months of operation, stories of individual triumphs
are beginning to emerge, but it's early days. Cescon says they must wait to see
if their clients are settling back into the community on a long-term basis,
finding work and perhaps a little happiness.
"Ask me that [again] in a
year," she says.