OVERCROWDING is the main cause of death in Cambodian prisons, a government official said during a workshop on health in prisons yesterday.
Heng Hak, director general of the Department of Prisons at the Ministry of Interior, said 64 inmates had died nationwide in the first eight months of this year, and that the deaths had mostly been the result of health problems including high blood pressure, liver disease, cancer, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and heart attacks.
Most of these health problems, he said, were exacerbated by overcrowding in the country’s prison system.
“The narrow space in the prisons can cause all the problems,” he said, adding that there were currently 13,957 inmates in Cambodian prisons, well beyond the system’s official capacity of 8,000.
There are 96 doctors working in prison healthcare centres, representing a ratio of approximately one doctor per 150 prisoners, according to a ministry report released at the workshop.
Heng Hak said inmate health and living standards were at the centre of government prison reform policies. “Preventing the health [problems] of prisoners is very important for the process of prison reform,” he said.
Improving health went hand-in-hand with reducing overcrowding, Heng Hak said, and added that the government “has to resolve the narrow space problem”.
To achieve this, the government will focus on building new prisons to ease overcrowding and work in partnership with the Ministry of Health to provide better healthcare for prisoners, Heng Hak said.
Christian Brunen, head of the regional delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which co-organised and supported yesterday’s workshop, said efforts to relieve overcrowding had so far not been proportionate to the increase in prisoners.
He said that there had been a 10 to 15 percent increase in the number of prisoners over the past few years and that Cambodia had “not been able to expand the prison system widely enough” to accommodate the growing numbers.
Tuberculosis was a particularly common cause of death in prisons, he said.
‘Step by step’ progress
Eang Huot, secretary of state at the Ministry of Heath, yesterday acknowledged that healthcare services for prisoners were limited and pledged greater inter-ministerial cooperation to improve the situation “step by step”.
He also called on others to increase their focus on the issue. “I would like to request that the National Centre against tuberculosis increase their services to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS to prisoners,” he said.
Jeff Vize, a consultant for the rights group Licadho, said yesterday that a lack of properly trained health workers was at least as problematic as overcrowding. “For sure, overcrowding can lead to spread of disease, but the big problem is that there really isn’t any serious health service in place for prisoners,” he said.
He noted, however, that the shortage of properly trained medical workers was a problem that extended beyond the prison system and did not have a simple solution.
“Maybe an easier step would be the reduction of overcrowding,” he said, and added that a “holistic” overhaul of the justice system was required to address the “staggering” spike in inmate numbers in recent years.
He said sending fewer people to prison, especially for pretrial detention, and instead utilising alternatives such as non-custodial sentences would help ease overcrowding.
“There are close to 4,000 people in pretrial detention,” he said. “Do they all really need to be there?”
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BROOKE LEWIS