Prisoners at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh now have free access to something that was once an expensive luxury – clean drinking water.
A co-operative project between the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, the General Department of Prisons and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which funded the project, has ensured the nearly 2,900 prisoners at Prey Sar prison complex are hooked up to the main water supply in the capital.
Sun Lean, prison chief of Correctional Center 1 at Prey Sar, said that the 2,898 prisoners there have had access to clean water since last Friday with the funding assistance of the ICRC.
However, the access is not unlimited, and each prisoner is only entitled to receive 10 litres of water per day, the prison chief said.
“Before, our prisoners used water from tube wells,” he said, adding that the water from the “unclean” tube wells is now used for bathrooms in the prison.
ICRC water program co-ordinator Alessandro Giusti said that while the prison itself is now connected to the Phnom Penh water supply, there were only a certain number of set distribution points inside the prison.
“It was part of the city’s master plan to connect the prison, but that wouldn’t have been implemented until 2020,” Giusti said.
“We have been aware of the critical needs inside the prison for some time,” he said. “Now the detainees have drinking water all the time.
“In Phnom Penh, the water is properly treated, so we can say that it is drinking water [in the city supply],” he added.
Sun Lean said that clean water is contained in 5,000 or 8,000 litre containers at the set distribution points and prison staff are responsible for the delivery of water to prisoners.
Previously, prisoners in Cambodia’s largest and most overcrowded prison only had free access to water in the Prey Sar complex from a ground pond that contained flooding runoff and rainwater and was used for latrines and washing.
Clean, but non-potable water, previously set a prisoner back 1,000 to 1,200 riel for between 10 and 20 litres, while drinking water was sold at a premium at retail value, rights group Licadho’s prisons monitor Jeff Vize said.
“It makes prisoners very reliant on family and friends to bring money, food, water and other materials,” Vize said. “Those who don’t have families and don’t have visitors suffer the worst.”
Although providing basics such as food, water and medical care to prisoners is seemingly a government responsibility, Vize said: “It is hard to find the money for these things, and if there is not the money and not the political will [there won’t be much improvement]”.
A foreign prisoner at Prey Sar told the Post yesterday he estimated it cost $650 a year purely to get clean drinking water.
“This is plain extortion, and many have to beg or steal water. Some wash in ditches. In 2010, they even sold the rainwater,” the prisoner said.
The prisoner, who is serving a seven-year sentence, alleged he once raised a complaint about the lack of free drinking water when he was sick with an intestinal parasite.
He claims he and another prisoner were beaten by guards for raising the issue.
Ly Mov, deputy chief of the general department of prisons at the Ministry of Interior, said ICRC assistance was not testament to a lack of political will and the committee was one of more than 10 NGOs that had been working to improve the situation.
“It does not mean our government does not have the ability to provide prisoners with clean water like this. NGOs just help to complete what the government wants to complete,” Ly Mov said, adding that ICRC was also helping to build tube wells for prisons in Kandal province.
“It is water supplied by ICRC that is the standard of clean water, so our prisoners can drink it without boiling. Clean water like this is very important, because it can reduce infectious diseases resulting from drinking unclean water,” he said.
ICRC’s Giusti agreed the provision of safe drinking water to Cambodia’s largest prison population would improve the health and sanitation conditions of the nearly 2,900 inmates living in a complex designed to hold 1,600.
Vize pointed out that as well as temporary gastro-intestinal illnesses, prisons were a breeding ground for tuberculosis and scabies, which prisoners could spread to guards or carry with them when they were released.
“Most prisoners will complete their sentences and return to the community. The question is, what sort of citizen do we want them to be?” he asked.