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Setting them straight

Law students go behind bars to educate young lawbreakers

Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON

Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Centre II (left) houses minors and women with small children.

LAW students from Pannasastra University of Cambodia are getting a close-up look at life behind bars through a novel education program that aims to lower the recidivism rate among young offenders.

The law students will teach young offenders at Prey Sar prison's Correctional Centre II (CCII), a block housing only minors and female prisoners with their young children, about the Cambodian legal system and also help them with broader life skills.

The university is working with the Ministry of Interior on the six-month juvenile justice program, which began Saturday.

CCII Director Chat Sineang said 60 of the facility's 380 inmates, including 10 females, would take part in the first of what he hoped would be many courses. "These children come from a background of little education, so it is pleasing that the law students from the university have come to teach them about the legal system and practical life  skills," he said.

"I think after we have worked together to help these young kids develop a different awareness on life, including legal awareness, it will help them become better people and help them try not to break the law again."

The program is an offshoot of the university's Cambodia Legal Clinic, which was launched in 2004 to provide law students with hands-on training and improve access to legal aid for the poor.

Clinic director Raymond Leos, who is also dean of the university's media and communications faculty, said the university's students would act as role models for the young prisoners. "Our law students will teach them about the law and human rights, and teach them about life skills, so that when they get out from the prison they will have learned how to be citizens," he said.

"The advantage of this course is that it is Khmer teaching Khmer, young Khmer students working with young Khmer offenders."

The junior offenders will receive a certificate on completion of the training program, and Leos said the university hoped to work with the Ministry of the Interior to develop a system to monitor the progress of students following their reintroduction to society. If successful, the university would expand the course nationwide.

Photo by:

TRACEY SHELTON

Phun Vidjia said the law students could also learn from the

prisoners.

Give and take

Program coordinator Phun Vidjia, 24, who is also one of the 18 trainers taking part, said the university students would also learn from the experience.

"I would like to give a chance to the young prisoners," he said. "We can teach them but we can also learn from them  about some of the reasons they have committed crimes."

He said he had already found that the students were not innately bad but had often been pressured into a life of crime by their family or social situation. Many had been forced by poverty to drop out of school and commit crimes.

"Not all of them committed crimes by themselves," he said. "The circumstances around them led them into trouble."

That innate innocence meant there was a good chance the young offenders could change their lives for the better on their release, he added.

Phun Vidjia added that between 40 percent and 50 percent of the offenders were in jail for less than two years, though some were in prison for up to 10 years. Only 60 percent had legal representation at trial.

Cambodia's criminal code mandates free legal representation for any accused who cannot afford a lawyer, as do the international human rights treaties ratified by Cambodia, but a lack of funding means many face trial without support.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, which provides free legal advice to the poor and vulnerable, said it was good to teach prisoners about legal issues but they most needed practical training to help them find jobs as they tried to reintegrate into society.

Chat Sineang said he hoped the program would inspire other institutions and non-governmental organisations to get involved in the education of the nation's prison population, particularly in the form of practical work skills, morality and life practises.

The UN Children's Fund, Unicef, is already working closely with the prison, he said, providing practical vocational training.

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