Having begun life in an overcrowded cell with nowhere to play, little to eat and surrounded by abuse, when Dara* left prison at nearly 4 years old, he had not yet spoken a single word.
Dara’s story is the second in a series of case studies released by local rights group Licadho, which aim to “bridge the gap in knowledge” about young children in the Kingdom’s prisons.
According to the report, which was released on Saturday, Dara’s experience “highlights the critical importance of putting special measures in place when children are housed in Cambodian prisons with their mothers”.
As of last month, there were 39 children between the ages of 1 month and almost 4 years living with their mothers in prisons monitored by Licadho. Almost all of them “have never experienced or do not remember life beyond prison walls”.
Dara was born after his mother’s arrest and spent the first three-and-a-half years of his life in Takhmao prison. According to Licadho, no assessment was carried out to determine whether it would be appropriate for him to stay there.
Behind bars, Dara suffered numerous health problems and was hospitalised twice “after not receiving timely treatment”.
He suffered abuse at the hands of his mother, who sometimes “slapped him so hard that he fell to the floor and was left bleeding from the mouth and nose”. Guards reportedly beat his mother in response, the report says.
Despite a 2009 sub-decree ordering that mothers unable to breastfeed children under the age of 1 be provided with formula milk, Dara’s own mother received no such support.
When Dara eventually left prison to live with his grandparents in March 2013, it “was not out of consideration for his safety and well-being but because . . . the law no longer permitted him to stay” there.
Now 5 years old, Dara, who is receiving speech therapy, remains “severely delayed in his verbal communication”, displays “aggressive, destructive behaviour” and has “developed a general mistrust of his mother and the world around him”.
In general, Licadho says it supports “efforts to ensure newborn babies and small children have the opportunity to remain with their detained mothers”, but believes this should only happen after “comprehensive, individual assessments”.
Among its recommendations, Licadho calls for improved child protection efforts, and training on child development and the health care needs of pregnant mothers and children.
Chat Sineang, director of Takhmao prison, could not be reached for comment, while Sorn Keo, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, dismissed the report.
“They are living in good conditions, not as the NGO reports,” he said.
*Name changed by the report’s authors