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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Prisoners go hungry as food funds vanish

Prisoners go hungry as food funds vanish

P RISONERS in Cambodia's archaic provincial jails are slowly starving while administrators

try to locate funds the Interior Ministry should have provided to buy them food.

Senior Interior Ministry officials have confirmed money for prisoners' food seems

to have "disappeared" and that provincial jails had received only one monthly

payment since August.

Sim Samon, the director of Kompong Speu prison, said inmates were now on a diet of

just 50 grams of rice each day. The World Food Program calculates a healthy adult

needs a minimum of 440 grams to maintain good health.

"Please help us," Samon said. "The prisoners do not have enough food

and they lack vitamins so it is easy for disease to spread."

The World Food Program has confirmed it will provide emergency aid for Kompong Speu

prison, but the human rights group Licadho said the problem was both persistent and

widespread.

A spokesperson for Licadho, which runs a prisoner health project in several provincial

and Phnom Penh prisons, said most Cambodian prisoners lived on the "edge of

malnutrition".

Tuberculosis, fever, skin and intestinal diseases are common, exacerbated by cramped

conditions and poor diet.

In Kompong Speu prison at least 10 inmates are suffering from beri beri, a debilitating

condition caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The situation in others, and in particular

Kompong Som jail, is reported to be even worse.

Earlier this month an NGO sponsored doctor visited Kompong Som and discovered a scene

that might well have been Dante's Inferno.

According to the doctor's report, one prisoner was suffering from untreated bullet

wounds to the hand and ear suffered three weeks earlier. The hand was so badly smashed

and infected, the doctor concluded, it's likely to require amputation.

On Nov 4, three prisoners suffering severe beri beri were transferred from the Kompong

Som jail to the provincial hospital.

According to a medical report on the men, one was so ill from malnutrition that he

was "a week away from death." The two others were so weak they were unable

to walk unassisted.

But investigations revealed the three were shackled to beds and were refused treatment

and food, as hospital officials claimed they had few supplies and that the care of

prisoners was the responsibility of the prison authorities.

The prison director, according to an NGO sources, then moved them back to jail as

he considered they would die if left at the hospital. Emergency medical help improved

their condition, but one source said their health will deteriorate unless their diet

is improved.

Of 45 prisoners examined at Kompong Som, 32 required medical treatment and 16 were

suffering from beri beri.

A similar situation exists at other prisons, even those which benefit from fortnightly

visits of Licadho's Prison Health Program.

"Recent flooding prevented us from visiting Prey Veng hospital - in the four

weeks between visits eight prisoners developed beri beri," a Licadho investigator

said.

Several international organizations said the problem in Cambodia's prisons presented

them with a dilemma.

"Sure people need help," said a representative of one. "But if we

take over responsibility for prisoners, the Cambodian government never will."

Meanwhile confusion within the Interior Ministry as to where money for prisoner's

food is or has gone appears unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

Payments for August were made to provincial prison directors in early October, but

at press time payments for September, October and November were still outstanding.

Similarly, a special one-off payment of 3000 riels for each prisoner made each April

on occasion of Khmer New Year is still outstanding.

"If the Ministry does not give money prison directors must borrow the money

from businessmen and then they must pay very high interest on the loans," said

one senior Interior Ministry source who requested anonymity.

"This is nothing new. I've tried very hard to get answers about where the money

is, but I don't get an answer. Perhaps it has gone into some person's pocket.

"I am very frustrated and angry - the Interior Ministry gets a lot of money

from the Finance Ministry, but it is not passed on to us," he said gesturing

towards the construction of a large building within the Ministry compound.

"This is a very serious crisis - the department of prisons is being cheated

of its money - it happens all the time."

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