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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The tangled web of feeding inmates

The tangled web of feeding inmates

KUY Bun Son has a problem: he says he owes around $13,000 to money-lenders, who

aren't keen to give him any more, and has 283 mouths to feed. Bun Son is a prison

director and, by all accounts, a typical one.

"Since March, we haven't received money from the government," said the

chief of Cambodia's best-known penitentiary, T3 prison in downtown Phnom Penh. "When

I complain to my superior, he complains to his superior and I get the message that

the money may be paid soon".

Bun Son is used to waiting, and to begging and borrowing. For more than two months,

he's had to look elsewhere for the money to keep T3 running.

"The prison has spent almost 40 million riels [about $ 4,000] of borrowed

money, including $1,000 of my own money. I borrowed most of the money from the market:

we have to pay 5% interest.

"Now we are in a deadlock. We cannot borrow any more money; they won't lend

it to us."

Further support has come from a $500 loan from an NGO and three tones of rice

borrowed from various private vendors.

Two days before the Post spoke to Bun Son June 5, he ordered a 20% reduction in

inmates' food rations-fully expecting more prisoners to fall ill because of this.

"If they become sick, it's our mistake," he acknowledged, but said he

saw no other option.

As well as his inmates, Bun Son is concerned about the policemen employed as guards

at the prison. Their pay is low-28,000 riels a month for the lowest ranks-and usually

late.

They day before, June 4, he had finally received his staff's salaries for the

month of April. As for the inmates' food allowance, he was still waiting for the

allotment for March, let alone April or May.

During the interview, Bun Son was interrupted by two telephone and radio conversations:

one about an ill inmate taken to hospital the night before-water in the lungs, he

said - and the other a message from his superiors, again promising the March food

payments.

"The money that we will receive from the government, that should be enough

to pay back the market lenders, but I will not have any more.

"The important thing that if we have money to pay them back, then we can

borrow more from them again."

If this seems an extraordinary way to run a prison, spare a thought for those

in more remote areas, such as Cambodia' s biggest national prison - T5, in the middle

of nowhere near the Vietnamese border in Kampong Cham - where securing private loans,

as well as contacting the powers-that-be, is not so easy.

The director of T5 visited Phnom Penh this week and, in the office of a human

rights NGO, broke down in tears as he explained he couldn't borrow any more money

and feared a disease epidemic among his 375 inmates.

He also visited his Ministry of Interior bosses, who assured him they would pay

T5 its food allowance for the month of March soon. Also waiting for the same money

was T3 and the third national prison of Prey Sar (Phnom Penh), along with Takhmau

and Svay Rieng provincial prisons.

The rest of Cambodia's prisons are luckier-most of them got their March payments

between mid to late May. As for April's payments, a "couple" of prisons

are in line to get them soon, according to the ministry's prisons department, while

most are still waiting.

Delays to prison payments may be dire, but they are by no means new.

"Since I came to this job [in 1994], it's always been like this," said

General Na S. Hieng, the prisons department chief. "We have many meetings and

I ask 'Why is it always like this - two or three months delay, all the time ?"'.

The question 'why' is apparently not an easy one. Every official involved in prison

funding spoken to by the Post maintained that they did their job efficiently and

on time.

The reality, however, seems to be that the financing of Cambodia's prisons is

a bureaucratic quagmire full of corruption, demarcation disputes, and inefficiency

fueled by political instability. The bottom line, as one senior official put it,

is that "no-one cares" whether Cambodia's several thousand prisoners get

fed.

For a start, the red tape stretches for miles. The process for a prison to get

its monthly money to feed its inmates, as far as can be clearly established, goes

like this: each prison sends a list of its inmates-signed by the prison director,

the provincial police chief and the governor or deputy governor - to the Ministry

of Interior's prisons department. There, General Hieng checks the paperwork, adds

his signature and sends it on to the Ministry's director-general of administration,

Prum Sokha.

From Sokha, it goes to the ministry's finance department, who check the documents

are in order and that the money sought is within the ministry's budget. From finance,

it goes to the co-Ministers of Interior for approval, and then back to finance. The

finance department usually waits until it has a batch of applications from prisons

- this is quicker, it says - and then sends them to the Ministry of Finance, which

reviews them and, if they meet its standards, countersigns them. The Ministry of

Finance sends its approval to the Ministry of Interior's finance department, which

prepares "the yellow form" - the one that really counts - and sends it

to the co-Ministers. The yellow form, completed with the necessary signatures and

stamps, makes its way back to the Ministry of Finance which gives the final green-light.

The form makes its way to the National Bank, where, after about a week, the money

is ready to be picked up. Prison directors have to come to Phnom Penh, or send a

delegate, to collect the money.

In all, there are about 15 steps to be fulfilled. Each taking an average of about

four days - totaling two months - according to one Ministry of Interior staffer.

That's the official process. Unofficially, the paperwork gets buried unless, according

to three officials spoken to by the Post, bribes are paid at various steps along

the way.

When you go and see the Ministry of Interior, don't go with empty pockets,"

is how one provincial prison officer put it. "Everyone tries to benefit form

the process," agreed one ministry official .

Adding to the woes is apparent conflict between the prison and finance departments

at the Ministry, and between police and civilians.

Prum Sokha, a civilian, blamed the burred lines of authority as the main reason

for delays,

"The prisons department does not have responsibility for funding; the department

of finance does. Finance is not directly under my control. The prisons department

is directly under me, but the people who work there are policemen."

As for the finance department, headed by a one-star police general "they

sometimes report to the police, and sometimes report to me," Sokha said.

Proposing that a prison service separate from the police be established under his

control, Sokha said he believed the current demarcation problems also contributed

to poor discipline and security at jails.

At the prisons department, General Hieng said "I do my job on time" and

"I don't know what causes the delays ".

Over at the finance department, the No.2 in charge, Som Khan Da, blamed stricter

financial regulations imposed by the Ministry of Finance for much of the slowness.

He also cited some prisons' failure to provide proper documentation proving how

many inmates they had. " Some of the people responsible in prisons, they don't

even know to write properly," he added.

Prisons often sent in their requests for money late, too, he said. He produced an

application from Sihanoukville prison for its April food allowance - dated May 30.

As for T3 prison, it did not send in a request for its March payment until March

27, he said.

When the Post spoke to Khan Da on June 5 - 10 weeks to the day since T5 sent its

March allowance request - the money had still not been paid. Another ministry official,

asked privately what the problem was with T3's payment, cited delays cause by the

Khmer New Year holiday and the political instability which meant that "every

thing got put aside ".

Several other ministry staff agreed the "current situation" had done

a little to help oil the bureaucratic wheels.

When prisons finally do receive their money, not all on it goes on prisoners' food.

First to be siphoned off is the travel expenses of the prison officials who come

to Phnom Penh to pick it up, and then there is the interest to be paid on any private

loans prisons have taken out. There is also anecdotal evidence of money being "lost"

for one reason or other along the way.

"Sometimes the prison people come here to collect the money and then I see

them at a restaurant that night, drinking and eating," said one senior official.

"I think 'I know where that money came from'."

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