It's late morning and Kandal prison is on lock-down. Inside each of the
overcrowded cells more than 20 men sit or lie side by side, their few
possessions hang from the bars above creating much needed space on the floor
A few are pale faced and lethargic, others smile, some chat. All
352 are dressed in prison blues. Is it difficult in there?
A young man,
who's been inside for three months, nods in polite agreement, aware that the
prison director and his guards are standing nearby. The inmate motions towards
an older man in the corner, points and says he's been here for more than two
The old man sits quietly in the shadows under thick steel bars.
His fences are a patchwork of rusty barbed wire. Outside his cell the smell of
sewage is pungent and overwhelms the prison yard where an outdoor kitchen is
Conditions may seem harsh, but prison life has come a long way
since 1997 when felons were shackled in Khmer Rouge-era leg irons, forced to use
jars for toilets and faced "the dark cell" of solitary confinement for minor
breaches of prison rules.
Recently, however, Kandal prison has undergone
the first stages of a make-over initiated by Australian funding agency AusAID,
human rights group Licadho and the Prison Fellowship Program. As a result, it is
now widely regarded as the best of its contemporaries.
The next step for
Kandal is a complete overhaul.
Erected in 1953 as a purpose-built factory
and transformed into a prison in 1981 during Vietnamese occupation, the
dilapidated prison compound will be razed and new cells and administrative
buildings constructed as part of a far-reaching pilot program designed by
AusAID's Criminal Justice Assistance Project.
The program includes
training of police officers and court staff, rebuilding prison system
infrastructure and encouraging community involvement in preventing
By bolstering links between police, courts and prisons, Bob
Bradley, the Australian team leader for the Criminal Justice Assistance Project,
hopes the program will also make inroads against the problem of people
languishing in jails because of breakdowns in coordination within the judicial
The winner of the construction tender should be announced by
March and construction will take about 18 months, said Bradley. The new designs
took two years to complete and included input from incarcerated
Some of their ideas took foreign designers by surprise,
particularly in regards to a traditional Khmer lifestyle.
you've got a small cell with two or three people in there," said
This was a preferable model for Australian prisoners who regard
privacy as a priority. But this was not the case in Cambodia, where village life
is dominated by shared facilities, communal eating and close living with
"Here, when we talk about prison design, people want a
more community[-style] living," Bradley said.
Bigger cells will house
six or eight prisoners and a pay phone will provide contact with family, friends
There are also plans to build "family" cells which could
house four mothers and their children. Cambodian law allows children to remain
with their jailed mothers. At Kandal, three toddlers spend their days in a
five-by-three meter cell with their mothers and several other
Kandal also now boasts Cambodia's only registered prison clinic.
Staffed by two nurses and three first-aid attendants, the infirmary dispenses
basic treatment and medicine. Doctor's visit regularly to perform medical
The clinic, however, did not come without costs. Prison
Director Moung Samarth had to give up his office. He is working under a tree
until the new buildings are completed.
To help ease reintegration,
prisoners are trained in mechanics and other technical skills. One inmate, a
former barber, has begun hairdressing courses.
Improved sanitation, such
as scrubbing cells with disinfectants and steam cleaning clothes, has resulted
in a dramatic fall in the rate of skin infections like scabies.
prison land has been devoted to growing vegetables as a means of offsetting a
meager government allowance of 1,000 riels per prisoner per day, which Samarth
said was not enough to cover the price of the lowest quality of rice, meat,
vegetables or firewood.
Chinese cabbage is grown to augment the
prisoners' two meals per day and to trade for crops and goods with the outside.
The new prison will also boast a small, gray-water fish farm, and the fish
raised in it will contribute to prisoners' protein intake.
farming was born out of necessity, said Samarth, but also gives about 30 inmates
the chance for exercise and fresh air as they tend the vegetables.
Conditions have steadily improved, said Samarth, but more needs to be
done to look after the psychological effects on incarceration.
physical conditions are still limited because they sleep on the mat on the floor
and as soon as they open their eyes they see those big bars," he
Traditionally, there has been almost no thought given to the
rehabilitation of Cambodian prisoners, but gradual reform and preparations for
reintegrating into the community are concepts that will be built into the design
of the new Kandal facility.
The different stages of detention - from
admission, medical checks, pre-trail detention and then high- to medium- to
low-security incarceration - will form a cycle in which increased privileges can
be earned along the way.
"The psychology behind it is that prisoners
cannot be released until they complete the circle," said Bradley.
prisoners will provide labor, helping to construct the walls that keep them from
freedom, but in greater comfort. With homegrown vegetables and fish, and a
reward system for good behavior, authorities hope Kandal will provide a
benchmark for prison reform not only in Cambodia but across the region.