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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Convicts find second chance behind blue gate

Convicts find second chance behind blue gate

Bora was filled with shame after being released from prison.

He was

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

free.

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

prisoners.

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

community.

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."

While

Prison Fellowship International is a Christian organization, it is not

evangelical, says Chisholm. "I'm a committed Christian, but I'm not a Bible

basher."

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.

"No

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

value."

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

or uncle.

"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.

"I

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

the future.

"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

system.

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.

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