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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Prison system set for desperately needed make-over

Prison system set for desperately needed make-over

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

below.

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

decades.

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

kept.

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

crime.

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

process.

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

prisoners.

Some of their ideas took foreign designers by surprise,

particularly in regards to a traditional Khmer lifestyle.

"In Australia

you've got a small cell with two or three people in there," said

Bradley.

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

extended family.

"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

and lawyers.

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

women.

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

checkups.

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.

Further,

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.

In-house

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.

"The

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

said.

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.

Some

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.

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