Ol Chanty's three children didn’t know their mother had been imprisoned until kids in the local neighbourhood started teasing them.
The 27-year-old was arrested late last year on charges of theft. She says she was accused of stealing less than a dollar.
Despite the minor nature of the crime, Chanty, who maintains her innocence, spent three months in pretrial detention, and a further three months behind bars after she was sentenced.
She claims she didn’t see or speak to her children – aged 3, 5 and 8 – at all during her incarceration.
“They had no money to visit me … [and] I couldn’t afford a phone card to call them,” she said yesterday, struggling to be heard over her children’s playful shrieks, which echoed around the family’s ramshackle house in Kandal province’s Prek Hou commune.
With their mother away, and their father also imprisoned for a drug offence, the children were left in the care of their elderly grandmother, Mov Taing, who found it difficult to make enough money to support them.
“They were always crying and asking for their mother,” Taing said. “I used to tell them their mother had just gone to the market … but some children in the neighbourhood told them she was detained in jail. They would say, ‘Your mum is in jail; we won’t play with you’.”
Yesterday, the children clung to their mother, pulling at her clothes and pushing each other out of the way as they vied for attention.
Chanty said they remain worried that she might disappear again.
Mothers Behind Bars, a report released today by local rights group Licadho, describes the devastating effects imprisonment has on thousands of children like Chanty’s.
“In the majority of cases, the imprisonment of a mother can have deep and long-lasting psychological and developmental consequences for her children and may increase the likelihood that the children themselves later come into conflict with the law,” it says.
The report, which is based on interviews with 96 imprisoned mothers and 36 caregivers, says that, in addition to impacts on a child’s education and mental and physical health, a mother’s imprisonment can put a “debilitating” financial strain on her entire family.
Local NGO This Life Cambodia (TLC) – which operates a program dedicated to supporting the children and families of prisoners, and assisted Licadho with its report – said the effects of a mother’s imprisonment cannot be underestimated.
“When a parent is imprisoned, the dynamics of families change,” said Billy Gorter, founder and director of TLC, which he established in 2007. “Children with a caregiver in prison are likely to drop out of school, and some may face stigma within their communities. The impact of this increased family stress ranges from emotional distance between children and their parents, to actual family separation”.
Gorter said children supported by TLC have “reported feeling unloved, uncared for and having to take on the roles and responsibilities of their mother in prison”.
According to Licadho’s report, such suffering is largely unnecessary.
“The welfare of children is routinely ignored, not only at arrest, but throughout the whole judicial process” in Cambodia, it says.
Issues include costs, a lack of privacy and restrictions on physical contact placed on prison visits.
Of major concern, the report says, is the over-use of pretrial detention and lack of alternative sentencing for mothers imprisoned for minor offences.
“Whilst steps have been taken in recent years to promote rehabilitative imprisonment, pretrial detention alternatives and non-custodial sentences, implementation has proceeded slowly at best.”
Contrary to Cambodia’s Code of Criminal Procedure, “many people convicted of minor offences, especially mothers and pregnant women, are sent to prison without any consideration of noncustodial alternatives”, it adds, explaining that, as of December, 70 per cent of women in prison were in pretrial detention.
Chanty said in an interview that she asked to be spared from pretrial detention, citing her three dependent children. But her request was ignored.
Another mother, 28-year-old Khoun Sreytouch, who was convicted for drug dealing last year, said she was sent to pretrial detention with her 7-month-old baby, while her two other children, aged 5 and 9, were separated: one living with his father, and the other with an aunt.
The 5-year-old helped his father scavenge through rubbish to make the money needed to afford prison visits.
According to Licadho, due to what it termed “deep-rooted corruption”, the majority of women sent to pretrial detention and eventually convicted “come from poor families who are most vulnerable to any drop in income”.
Mothers Behind Bars urges authorities to “consider the impact of a mother’s imprisonment on her children outside prison and pay serious attention to alternatives to prison for this priority group”.
But Kuy Bunsorn, director general of the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, said he would not listen to the rights group’s recommendations.
“I’m not interested in the Licadho report,” he said, before accusing Post reporters of receiving a salary from the NGO.
Licadho warned that “in the absence of alternative measures, thousands of children across Cambodia will continue to suffer the consequences of harsh, unnecessary detention policies”.