At first glance the gaunt face of Mean Soket, 49, appears full of wisdom. He dispenses
advice as he patiently demonstrates to a young apprentice the tools of his mechanical
trade. But a closer look into his sombre expression and deep-set eyes provides a
window into an untold life.
Mean Soket with fellow apprentices and former prison inmates in the mechanic's workshop at Blue Gate House in west Phnom Penh.
Soket just spent his last 12 years in prison.
In the time since he was incarcerated in Kampong Cham's Tropaing Plong Prison in
1994, Cambodia became an unfamiliar land to Soket.
While he was inside, HIV/AIDS became a concern, motorbikes began swarming the roadways
and cities transformed overnight. Soket emerged in December 2006 into a fast, noisy,
urbanized society, without job skills and unable to provide for his wife and children.
To prepare for freedom, Soket joined pre-release classes organized by the Prison
Fellowship of Cambodia (PFC). Upon release he continued his education with a six-month
mechanic's apprenticeship at Blue Gate House, a reintegration project run by PFC.
"After I was released from prison, I wanted to look after my family and start
a business in a legal way, in order to be a good father to my children," Soket
said. "My future career will be as a motorbike repairman."
Often accused in the past of human rights' abuses, the Cambodian prison system is
now receiving praise from NGOs with prison-based programs for its cooperation in
providing inmates new opportunities.
"The prison system has really opened up to allow groups like us to do some really
good work," said Adam Hutchinson, co-project leader of Blue Gate House.
Characterized by a large, dark blue front gate, Blue Gate House is a drop-in center
for ex-prisoners seeking assistance during the three months after release. Apprenticeships
in mechanics, small business loans, and help reuniting families are some of the services
provided by the center. Released prisoner's transportation costs to and from the
center are paid for and temporary accommodation is provided.
Although the Prison Fellowship is a faith-based organization, Linda Chisholm, executive
director of PFC, says their help is offered indiscriminately.
"Our role is simply to take education in [to the prison] and give the prisoner
a chance for reintegration that gives them a chance to work and raise their self
esteem," she said.
Education programs run by the PFC include classes in computing, mechanics, English,
and sewing. Other aid programs help to meet nutritional and sanitation needs of inmates.
Hutchinson says the key to the success of the reintegration services at Blue Gate
House is the support given by the prison authority to conduct meetings that build
rapport between the inmates and social workers while they are still serving their
"Unless we have access before they are released, people often don't know about
us. They don't trust us and they don't come here. If we are able to build relationships
before they come out, then they are more likely to come to Blue Gate House,"
The importance of gaining trust from the prisoners is stressed by Chat Sineang, director
of the CC2 section at Prey Sar Prison, a block housing only minors and female prisoners
with their young children.
Sineang wishes to see a school built nearby the prison for the children of incarcerated
mothers, but he sees the mother's lack of confidence in the prison system as an obstacle.
"They think their children will be treated badly," he said.
He said further collaboration is needed with the PFC, which is considering plans
to convert a nearby house into a primary school. If they work together, he says,
it may be possible to gain the trust of the mothers and explain that their children
will be well-provided for.
Children below the age of six often live with their mothers in Cambodia's prisons.
NGO and prison officials say caring for children is difficult as funding is not provided
because they are technically not prisoners.
The Ministry of Interior (MoI) allocates 1,500 riel per prisoner per day - an
increase from 1,000 riel in August 2006 - to cover prisons' operational costs, including
food, staff salaries, utilities, administration and sanitation, according to local
human rights group Licadho. The national poverty line was calculated by the World
Bank to be 1,826 riel per person per day in 2004.
Responding to the extra nutrition and development requirements of mothers and their
children, Licadho started the Adopt-A-Prison project in 2003. Facilitating support
from 13 individuals and organisations, the project provides extra food, toiletries
and medical assistance in 10 of Cambodia's 25 prisons, with the next project phase
to address a lack of education opportunities for young children.
Seeing the project as a simple, cost-effective way to distribute aid, Jacques Baekart,
the minister-counsellor of the embassy of the Order of Malta to Cambodia, often hand
delivers food and essentials directly to women and children twice a month in CC2
and Takmau prisons.
"It brings a human touch to the program," Baekart said. "These kids
usually have no access to food other than the meager ones given by the prison to
the mothers ... and to see the joy on the face of the kids and women is more than
enough to justify what we are doing."
Chin Lyda, prison project leader of Licadho, said a lack of prison funding not only
inhibits access to sufficient nutrition and medical attention but does not adequately
provide for a child's future development beyond the prison walls.
"If they can at least learn to read they can increase their education and future
prospects," he said.
THE LIFE AFTER
Cambodia's prisons have a reputation for harsh conditions, including overcrowding
and a lack of food. Regular contact and assistance from poorer families is obstructed
by corruption, despite prison procedures stating each prisoner is entitled to at
least one weekly visit of one hour.
"It is a big obstacle for the families to visit prisoners," said Lyda.
According to Lyda, poorer families already struggle to pay transportation costs to
the prison and buy extra food for the prisoner, then they must bribe prison guards
to get inside the prison for visits.
"The guards aren't paid enough, so this way the prisons receive extra funds
to be managed," Lyda said. "But there is no law stating that guards can
charge money - it is corruption."
In a 2001 prison report, Licadho found that visiting a prisoner costs an average
23,000 riel, about $5.75, in payments to prison staff. Prison guards make an average
of $50 a month. In 2004 guards made an average $25 per month.
The isolation from family combined with long sentences can leave NGOs with a formidable
task in reuniting families.
"One of the really terrific things they do here is find people, they find mums
and dads who burst into tears when they know that their son is alive," said
Chisholm about Blue Gate House.
The need for development programs is emphasized by the staggering number of released
inmates who approached Blue Gate House. An estimated 20 percent of inmates released
in 2005 showed up on Blue Gate's doorstep.
"I was thinking we'd be lucky to reach five percent for such a young organisation,"