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Prison system needs substantial reforms

Dear Editor,

On May 3 the Post published the article “Torture at Prey Sar: Heng Pov”. The much-feared former Phnom Penh police commissioner linked guards to violence against inmates at Correctional Center 1 (CC1). His claim met with serious denials by the Ministry of Interior.

As part of my PhD research, I frequented eight Cambodian prisons (CC1 included) and interviewed about 300 detainees and 51 wardens and guards, in both Khmer and Vietnamese. My findings were shocking, as I seemingly uncovered a new society within the larger Cambodian society.

Cambodia’s prisons are more than places of punishment and rehabilitation. Each is a society within the larger society, characterised by inequality, unfairness, hierarchy and many more aspects of life observed in the Cambodian society. High levels of corrupt practices and abuses of power were reported to me by both prisoners and guards. My data largely suggest that Cambodian prisons are primarily places for the poor, the powerless, the poorly educated and those with few connections. The accounts of most detainees I interviewed included substantial allegations that most prisoners, particularly those who are poor, were treated as if they were “less than human”.

Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners is less common than in the 1980s, and the government must be credited for such a brilliant achievement.
Nevertheless, I encountered numerous allegations of human rights abuses against detainees. The severity of accusations of misconduct by prison officials varied significantly from one prison to another. In each prison, only a few officials were reportedly involved in inhumane treatment of inmates or other forms of malpractice. Most officers, indeed, were nice, and I felt pity for their situation. Many guards call themselves “prisoner without a conviction” because they spend most of their time in prison just like the prisoners.

The Cambodian correctional system demonstrates a need for significant improvement. It is imperative that prison officers are properly paid, trained and disciplined. Good governance that ensures a better balance of power between wardens and prison officers, and accountability and transparency would surely contribute to reduced opportunities for malpractice. More resources are needed, including staff, budget, equipments/materials and infrastructure. Intensive vocational training programmes should be implemented, taking into account future market requirements, safety and security in prison, and the detainees’ age, sex and future plans. Achieving this goal will require not only human capital but also political will and the necessary resources.

Chenda Keo
Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security

Send letters to: or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.



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