Wealthy inmates held within Cambodia’s chronically overcrowded prison system would be able to pay for upgraded cells at a new, privately built and managed complex in Phnom Penh under a proposal unveiled last week by Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
Speaking at an Interior Ministry meeting on Wednesday, Kheng, also a deputy prime minister, said the government already has a company interested in building a prison, which, he added, had been approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
He initially said the facilities would not be “like a hotel”, though later said “we can call it a hotel or detention centre”.
“The prisoners and the families who have money, they can [pay] rent and stay there,” Kheng said, adding such a facility would also generate state revenue.
Kheng said the suggestion – which was yesterday slammed by human rights advocates – drew inspiration from “modern prisons” he saw in Australia.
He recounted visiting one such prison in Canberra where guards watched inmates cook barbeque and hour-long conjugal visits were permitted in the “freedom room”.
“It would help us not to use state budget to build detention centre infrastructure,” he said of the plan.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, Nuth Savna, said yesterday that the complex would be in Phnom Penh, though a final location had not been chosen.
Savna noted Prey Sar prison had little space for a new building and that City Hall had suggested three sites.
“We, the prison department, thought that it might be good if we can build other facilities where better-off prisoners can afford and stay until the end of their prison term,” Savna said.
Savna acknowledged potential human rights concerns, though stressed the proposal was “just an idea” and further studies would assess the impact of the project, which he said was first floated over a year ago..
He did, however, suggest the kind of prisoner who might, under such a scheme, hope to upgrade to better lodgings.
“We can rent to those who have money, like Duong Chhay and others,” he said, referring to the son of a powerful business tycoon imprisoned for four months last year for assault.
“They are used to living in good conditions and they may want to continue living in good conditions. So they have that option.”
Cambodia’s prisons have come under repeated attack for endemic bribery, human rights abuses and squalid living conditions, often endured by those without the cash to pay for comforts.
In a comprehensive 2015 report, rights group Licadho, which inspected 18 of the Kingdom’s prisons, found cash flow “dictated” prison life, with inmates forced to pay bribes for everything from food, water, daylight and fresh air to medical treatment, family visits family, recreation and vocational training.
It also found wealthy inmates routinely paid for better cells, drugs, alcohol and prostitutes, and noted reports of “VIP cells” for well-connected prisoners.
Billy Tai, a former adviser to the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), called the plan to allow wealthy prisoners to upgrade “absurd”.
“If they are building a first-class prison and then the rest of the prison population go cattle class, I mean, this really for me demonstrates that there’s no understanding of some of these issues about prison conditions whatsoever,” Tai said.
“So the inherent economic divides within the prison system are so entrenched they don’t even have a problem making it official.”
Via email, Wan-Hea Lee, Cambodia representative for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, said though prisoners with disposable income could make themselves more comfortable, such differential treatment based on payments was concerning.
“The human rights standards require the humane treatment of all persons deprived of their liberty regardless of their ability to pay,” she said.
Cambodia’s prison population leapt nearly 20 per cent in the first 10 months of 2015, hitting 17,522 prisoners in October, according to Interior Ministry figures.
The country, which has four national correctional centres, 23 municipal and provincial prisons and a military prison, has an official capacity of just 8,500 inmates, Licadho’s report stated.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the Kingdom’s penal system, where privilege comes via “a wad of cash”, was “at crisis point”.
“The problem is that there is so little left for the vast majority who can’t pay – as seen in the chronic over-crowding, lack of basic services, abysmal food and lack of potable water,” he said.
Ly Seav Minh, a land dispute activist imprisoned in Prey Sar after a politically connected company claimed her land, yesterday recounted the already entrenched divide between rich and poor inside, saying higher sleeping platforms were sold for $50.
“Prison is not a place that deters people from their past bad actions,” Minh said.