A MOUNTING crisis in Cambodia's prisons this year has seen at least seven inmates
die from sickness, continual delays to government payments for prisoners' food, and
a rash of escapes.
The situation is described as critical, with many of Cambodia's prisons able to
cope only by taking out private loans, relying on aid donors or cutting convicts'
Government officials acknowledge lack of food is one likely reason for the number
of prison break-outs.
Nearly 100 inmates from10 of Cambodia's 24 provincial and national prisons escaped,
or attempted to, in the first five months of 1997. At least 44 people have successfully
escaped from seven prisons, aside from numerous attempted break-outs and cases of
inmates fleeing while temporarily released under guard.
The shooting of unarmed inmates is becoming a standard method of dealing with
prisons escapes, according to human rights groups. At least four escapees have been
killed - and possibly another four, if an unconfirmed report is true-and three wounded
by bullets. One, a 40-year-old woman at Kampong Thom prison, was shot in the thigh
after being caught while still the on prison grounds Delays of 2-3 months in Ministry
of Interior payments for prison food are the norm for nearly all prisons.
While ministry officials cite cumbersome and complicated funding procedures, some
observers are beginning to question whether all the money budgeted for prisons is
in fact available. Senior ministry officials deny knowledge of any suggestion that
large amounts of money may have been stolen or mis-spent, though some acknowledge
petty corruption .
Those prisons worst hit include Cambodia's three national jails -T3 and Prey Sar
in Phnom Penh and T5 in Kampong Cham province - which have waited more than three
mouths for official funds to buy food, At Post press time, ministry officials, after
holding emergency meetings, said one month's food allowance - for March - would be
Several prisons including T3 and T5 have been refused more loans from private money-lenders
until they pay back, with interest, what they already owe. T3 has borrowed nearly
40 million riels (about $14,000), sources say.
Inmate rations at T3 were cut by 20% last week, with director Kuy Bun Son acknowledging
that "we expect.... many prisoners will be sick." Banteay Meanchey prison
has also cut rations for some convicts, human rights monitors say.
According to the NGO Licadho, seven inmates have died of sickness at prisons or
provincial hospitals this year. Although there is no evidence of deaths directly
resulting from malnutrition-autopsies are rarely conducted-rights workers and government
officials confirm that health standards in prisons are precarious; poor food, lacking
protein and vitamins, weakens inmates, while overcrowding and poor sanitation helps
spread illnesses like tuberculosis, diarrhea and beriberi.
"I tell [my bosses] that if we keep the prisoners in jails, they will die.
If we let them outside the jail, the police will handcuff them," said General
Na S. Hieng, director of the Ministry of Interior prisons department. "I don't
know what to do."
The United Nations Center for Human Rights (UNCHR), Licadho and fellow human rights
NGO Adhoc have all received emergency requests for help from prisons.
"Since early March, nearly all prison directors say they have not received
money" said an Adhoc representative. "They say that prisoners are going
The World Food Programme has in recent months provided food supplies to three
prisons, Kampong Speu, Sihanoukville and Battambang, on a temporary basis.
"Feeding of prisoners is not the responsibility of the World Food Programme,"
WFP country director Philippe Borel said. "However, WFP reluctantly allocates
food to prisons on humanitarian grounds when specially requested by UNCHR or Licadho,
convinced that the food situation of the inmates is unbearable."
Most of the WFP food has gone to Kampong Speu prison, which is no stranger to
hunger and epidemics. In a 1995 food crisis, 90% of the prison's inmates fell sick,
and one died from tuberculosis worsened by malnutrition.
Two years later, little has changed at Kampong Speu: in February, a Licadho medical
team on an "emergency visit" due to the "nutritional condition of
the prisoners' found a 28-year-old, with a history of tuberculosis, suffering from
vitamin deficiency. Another visit on Apr. 7 found that he had developed pleurisy,
and antibiotics were prescribed. Eight days later he died.
The Ministry of Interior separately pays prisons for inmates' food and guards'
salaries. Both are usually late, though salaries usually arrive before the food money.
Some of the prisons' food allowances is often siphoned off - to pay off the interest
on loans taken out, or spent illicitly by prison staff-according to several officials.
This reduces an already meager allotment, calculated at 1,000 riels a day to feed
According to an NGO report obtained by the Post, recent spot checks on the food
in two prisons-Kampong Chhnang and Svay Rieng- estimated prisoners received about
600 calories in each of two daily meals. A 25-year-old man working moderately hard
in a temperate (not tropical) climate requires about 3,200 calories a day, according
to Manson's Tropical Diseases.
General Hieng, director of the ministry's prisons department, said prison chiefs
department, said prison chiefs complained that food shortages were encouraging escapes.
He agreed that some breakouts might be "related to food", but also cited
other factors such as the low salaries of prison guards, who neglected their duties,
and aging, insecure prison buildings.
Hieng's immediate superior, Ministry of Interior director-general of administration
Prum Sokha, agreed lack of food was one reason. But he did not believe it was the
over-riding reason, adding: "All over the world, people try to escape from prisons."
Sokha said prison break-outs were made easier by ramshackle prison buildings,
unskilled and ill-disciplined guards and lack of clear lines of government authority
Both Sokha and Hieng suggested that NGOs' pressure for prison reforms-an end to
the use of shackles, for instance - was also a factor.
"Since no prisoners were shackled, that's when the escapes started. And since
NGOs started saying that prisoners must be allowed out [of cells] for exercise,"
Shackling was reintroduced in Sihanoukville prison after a Mar 4 mass escape bid.
Initially, many inmates were chained day and night, say rights workers. This was
scaled down to a small number of "most dangerous" prisoners being shackled
"They don't see any other solution," General Hieng said of Sihanoukville
prison staff. "They say we have to shackle inmates during the night, or else
they will escape. It's only a temporary arrangement-until they get money to fix [prison
One human rights advocate, referring to a recent flurry of construction at the
Ministry of Interior's Phnom Penh headquarters, responded: "The MOI is able
to build five new buildings at its compound, but they can't find a bit of wood and
cement to restore a prison? "
The rights worker, who requested anonymity, said a link between late food payments
and more prison break-outs was logical.
"What we believe we're seeing is that a failure to feed inmates leads them
to escape, just as a failure to pay salaries produces poor guards."
For those inmates who don't escape, and fall sick from poor food and conditions,
medical treatment is minimal. Gravely-ill prisoners are often not sent to hospital,
or only at the last minute, say human rights and medical workers. "It is hard
to know what is negligent and what is malicious," one NGO representative said
of prison guards' attitudes.
"I tell my people 'If you cannot treat them in jail, please send them to
hospitals," said Gen Hieng. "When we send tem to hospitals, sometimes they
do not have any medicine for them. This is the responsibility of the public health
Monitoring and treating convicts inside prisons is one responsibility not taken
by provincial health officials. A handful of NGOs provide medical services in some
prisons but "where there is no NGO, there is nothing," according to Jean-Claude
Prandy of Medicines du Monde (MDM).
A physician and nurse from MDM regularly visit five jails. They see about 550
inmates a month, usually treating 20-30 in each three-hour session.
"There has been little change in [prisoners'] health since 1992," said
Prandy. "The buildings are the same, the sanitation is the same, the guards
are the same.
"The food is sometimes enough, but it's not good. Sometimes it is not enough,
but we don't know why," he said, adding wryly: "It never changes: rice,
rice and sometimes rice."
The most common illnesses are caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding: diarrhea,
scabies, tuberculosis and beriberi. HIV-AIDS appears to be a growing problem, Prandy
said, and deaths from diarrhea and tuberculosis may be a consequence of AIDS.
While Ministry of Interior officials are warmly welcoming an impending AusAid
project to renovate prisons in five provinces as a big step forward, human rights
advocates say a real government commitment to improving the plight of prisons is
"Cambodia's prisons are in a state of crisis. Penal administration is in
disarray. Prison buildings are in many cases literally falling down. Medical care
is often non-existent and disease and malnutrition are rampant," began a UNCHR
report in 1995.
Two years on, "the only change is that it's gotten worse," said one