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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Woes for all at Phnom Penh's remote new prison

Woes for all at Phnom Penh's remote new prison

Three former school buildings where prison guards and their families have to live

T

he prize for Sokimex was the land behind Wat Ounalom occupied by the old T3 prison.

To get it, the company built a new prison at Prey Sor, 15km south of Phnom Penh.

And that is just too remote and under-serviced, for jailers and jailed alike, as
Bou Saroeun and Anette Marcher report.

After half a day of rain the road to Prey Sor prison turns into mud. Access deteriorates

with every raindrop as the remote penal facility becomes even more isolated.

More than 15 kilometers out of Phnom Penh, the yellow-painted walls and buildings

of the replacement for T3 prison - put into use in January and renamed 'Educational

Facility M1' a few months later, pop up incongruously between rice paddies and sugar

palms.

From the outside it looks modern and efficient - certainly much better than the crumbling

century-old colonial T3 in central Phnom Penh. But since the first prisoners moved

into their new cells, M1 has been plagued by problems and shortcomings.

The water supply is constantly causing trouble. So is the regular transport of prisoners

to and from Phnom Penh. New buildings and facilities are left empty and idle because

the prison lacks money to equip them. Prison staff complain of decreasing income

and reduced living conditions. And the prisoners' families have had difficulties

getting to visit their husbands and sons behind the concrete wall and barbed wire.

When business giant Sokimex finished construction of M1 in return for the old T3

site in central Phnom Penh, the new prison was hailed as a sign of new and modern

times for the Cambodian penal system - at least physically speaking. Gone would be

the days of 100 prisoners huddled together in crammed, dark cells, claustrophobic

prison yards where only half the inmates could catch a breath of fresh air at the

same time and families of prison guards camping out in the back yard in sometimes

appalling conditions.

Recently, a guided tour inside the double steel gates that separate the inmates from

the rest of the world confirmed that at least in terms of living conditions, M1 is

a major improvement on the old T3 prison.

Two large courtyards leave the prisoners plenty of space to practice any kind of

exercise or recreational activities during the two periods in the morning and the

afternoon when they are allowed out of their cells. Grassy areas separate volleyball

and football fields. In one of the yards inmates are working in a vegetable garden.

The prison authorities also hope to some day plant rice in the wet soil.

Steel doors and yellow walls incongruous amid palms and rice fields

Former Khmer Rouge comman-der Nuon Paet, who last year was sentenced to life imprisonment

for the 1994 kidnapping and murder of three Western backpackers, is content with

his new surroundings.

"When I was in T3 I was always sick - especially with fever," he said.

"Here I feel much better. There is more space and I exercise every morning."

Paet is scheduled to go to court again for his appeal hearing on Sep 20.

In terms of accommodation, Paet is one of the lucky ones in M1. Most inmates live

in large cells where about 35 prisoners sleep closely next to each other on bamboo

mats on long concrete platforms. Paet lives in one of the smaller five-man cells

with only one cellmate, so there is plenty of room.

And there is light in Paet's cell. It flows in from outside through a row of narrow

slits underneath the ceiling. Most of the smaller cells don't have these slits, and

the prison is only supplied with electricity during the night, so the inmates are

left in almost total darkness most of the day.

Altogether M1 can hold 1,200 prisoners in its three two-story cell blocks. When the

Post visited, 1,055 inmates lived behind the prison walls.

Most don't have enough water. All the cells are equipped with one or two bathrooms,

but since the beginning prison authorities have struggled to get the water supply

to function properly. The whole facility only has one 20,000 liter water tank, nowhere

near enough for the prison's needs.

Also, the tank is not placed high enough, so the water pressure is too low to keep

water flowing in all the pipes around the prison ground. The water simply never reaches

the most distant outlets.

Prison Director Sam Ni says he has tried to contact both Sokimex and the Prison Department

in the Interior Ministry to get the problem solved, but no solution has yet been

found.

"Instead we have bought tin cans for all the prisoners so they can carry water

to their cells themselves," says Sam Ni.

At the Prison Department in Phnom Penh, Deputy Director Kuy Bun Son acknowledges

that water remains a problem at M1. According to his estimates, the prison needs

a daily water supply of 80,000 liters, and he says two new 20,000 liter tanks should

solve the water shortage satisfactorily.

"But we cannot blame the constructor [Sokimex]; originally the plan was that

the prison should also have state water supply," says Bun Son. The nearest supply

of water from the state water system would have to come from several kilometers away.

The distance from Phnom Penh also creates a problem when inmates have to go to court.

M1 only has one vehicle, and that is also used for transporting food and other goods

to the prison. Often it is not available when a prisoner has to go to town for trial,

so the prison has to rent a car or ask court officials or the prisoner's lawyer to

help out.

Last month when former KR commander Chhouk Rin was tried on the same charges as Paet,

he, his family, his lawyer and M1 had to share the $50 cost for renting a car for

him and the prison guards.

Bun Son says M1 sometimes has up to three prisoner transports a day.

"We have requested the Ministry of Interior to buy two more cars," he says.

"We did not ask for brand new ones, just for secondhand cars. Now the request

is at the Ministry of Finance, but we still don't know the result."

Lack of finance and half-finished solutions are a recurring problem in M1. Right

inside the main gate two empty, low buildings languish behind knee-high grass. In

the original Sokimex plan they were supposed to function as a workshop and a school

room. But Sokimex omitted to equip the buildings and the prison can't afford to buy

tables, tools, books and workbenches, so the buildings are used to store food.

Bun Son says the Prison Department is looking for donors who will pay for the equipment.

"Our plan is to set up a handicraft workshop, so the prisoners can make an income,"

he says. "They can send the money to their families or they can use this money

as capital for setting up a business when they get out of jail."

While the prisoners may appreciate the move from T3 to M1, prison guards and their

families lament it. When they were living in Phnom Penh many of the guards worked

as moto-dops beside their prison duties, but out in the rice fields around M1 there

is not much demand for extra motos. The nearest traffic hub is the turnoff towards

the Choeung Ek Killing Fields several kilometers away.

Nuon Paet

Several prison guard wives have been hit by the same problem. In Phnom Penh they

ran small food shops or market stalls. At M1 there's just not enough business for

everybody.

Before the move to M1, prison guards and their families expressed their unhappiness

with the move during three days of demonstrations in front of the old colonial jail.

Eventually the Prison Department paid them each $300 compensation - an amount, they

say, that doesn't quite make up for the loss of a steady extra income.

The prison guards also feel cheated in other ways.

"Before the move, they promised us that they would build small houses for every

family," says one prison guard. "Then they said that they would build the

houses after we moved out here. That was months ago, and we still haven't seen any

houses."

Instead the guards and their families are now squeezed together in three school buildings

outside the eastern prison wall.

For the prisoners' families the move to M1 wasn't an entirely joyful experience either.

The remoteness causes the same problems of transport for them as for the prison officials

who have to send inmates to court. And since almost none have relatives in the vicinity

and there are not many business opportunities, few can settle down close to the prison

and await their relatives' release as they could have done in Phnom Penh.

Some also had the unpleasant experience of being turned away at the prison gate when

they came to visit. The prison suddenly introduced a regulation that meant the visitors'

village chief had to fill out a form and approve the visit before the families were

allowed to see their husbands, brothers and sons inside.

Prison Director Sam Ni says that regulation has now been abolished, and during the

Post's visit the visitors' room was full.

So some improvements have taken place at M1. Now they only need water, transport,

housing - and a major city springing up outside the prison gate.

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