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Prey Sar prison guards watch over inmates
Prey Sar prison guards watch over inmates on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in 2009 as they sit in the courtyard. Heng Chivoan

Where squalor’s the norm

Abuse, discrimination, exploitation and corruption are endemic in Cambodia’s prisons, spurred on by judicial and penal systems “driven by nepotism”, according to a new report from local rights group Licadho.

The report, Rights at a Price: Life Inside Cambodia’s Prisons, which was released yesterday, details a range of problems that exist within the Kingdom’s jails, where “many inmates are deprived not only of their liberty but also of other fundamental human rights”.

Judicial and penal systems in Cambodia are not guided by human rights approaches, the report says. Rather, they are “corrupt political structures driven by nepotism”.

“The courts continue to view prisons as a means to silence political activists and remove marginalized sectors of society from their communities whilst prison authorities are willing to abrogate their protection responsibilities in favor of economic interests and political favor.”

While the General Department of Prisons (GDP) should ensure that inmates are confined in a “safe, secure, hygienic and humane environment,” Licadho says that in reality, this is often not the case.

“Overcrowded, squalid conditions are the norm and corruption is widespread. For most inmates, cash flow dictates conditions of detention, treatment, family visits and access to basic needs such as food, water, daylight and fresh air,” the report says.

Inside prison walls, money is everything, and the have-nots suffer for a lack of it.

“The poorest inmates and those without families, or whose families and friends cannot visit them are, by default, at the bottom of the prison hierarchy,” the report says. “They sleep on the bare concrete cell floors, often near the toilet, and survive on the minimal prison food and water allocated. Some of them spend the majority of their day inside hot, dark and airless cells.”

Theng Savoeun – one of 23 unionists, activists, and workers who spent months detained at the remote Correctional Centre 3 (CC3) in Kampong Cham province after being arrested at a wage strike in Phnom Penh last January – described his time there as “damn difficult”.

“Eating is extremely difficult if you do not have money. If we did, we could buy food in the prison or walk freely out of the cell,” he said.

Savoeun said he was reluctant to complain to visitors – with whom he was limited to 10-minute meetings – about conditions in the prison, because he feared reprisals.

Licadho, which monitors 18 of the country’s prisons, says it is “likely that actual instances of abuse and other human rights violations are widely underreported”.

Among those suffering from abuse and exploitation are prisoners with mental health problems, pregnant women and juvenile offenders, the report says.

“If a boy without a family or from a very poor background arrived in prison, an older prisoner would choose him to stay and live in the same cell and serve him. They would be expected to massage them at night and cook for them,” one former inmate told Licadho.

Other issues raised in the report include high levels of pretrial detention, abusive labour schemes and torture.

GDP director Kuy Bunsorn could not be reached yesterday, while Kear Sovanna, director of CC3, dismissed reports of corruption within his prison.

“We have never had corruption or discrimination in the prison.… They just accuse us,” he said.

Licadho acknowledges that “limited steps” have been taken towards reforms, but says much more needs to be done.

“Firstly, the courts must understand the impact of their sentencing policies, and secondly, there needs to be a shift away from the dominant factors which currently determine prison life, namely the normalization of corruption, the influence of powerful cell leadership structures and the almost complete lack of accountability,” the report says.

Until fundamental changes are made, it adds, “prisons will remain places where rights are violated rather than respected and protected”.

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