Eight-year-old Sokun* spent almost the first seven years of his life in prison.
Unlike other Cambodian children who have the freedom to play and run free, countless hours of his early life were spent in a hot, squalid and teeming cell in the prison where his mother remains interred for human trafficking.
During those early years behind bars, Sokun witnessed many things that continue to haunt him, including his mother cutting down the body of a fellow prisoner who had hanged herself.
Local rights group Licadho, which released Sokun’s story yesterday in an effort to draw attention to the impact prisons can have on children, says that as of July, 51 children were living with their mothers in prisons monitored by the group.
Although the December 2011 Prison Law reduced the age limit of children allowed to stay in prison from six to three, about a dozen children over that age still live behind bars, Licadho reports.
While there are “undeniable benefits” of keeping a child with his or her mother when she is imprisoned, prisons do not provide a child-appropriate environment and are incapable of meeting a child’s basic needs, the report says.
To date, no assessment has ever been conducted by a state authority to determine whether a child should be allowed to live with his or her mother in prison or if appropriate family or other alternatives exist.
“The reality of Cambodian prisons is harsh for anyone, but for a child, it can be devastating,” Licadho prisons supervisor Nget Sokun said yesterday.
“These children are often forgotten by society, but worse still, they are too often ignored by the authorities responsible for them.”
General Department of Prisons director of operations Be Tealeng said that authorities were aware that over-age children continued to reside in prisons.
“We do really want to keep kids out of prison, but outside, there is no one who can be responsible for looking after them,” he said. “So their mothers ask us to let them live with them, and for humane reasons, we allow this.”
He added that older children were discretely allowed to attend local state schools outside prisons, and that the authorities were in discussion with NGOs to help release and adequately care for more currently incarcerated children.
The current government funding for each adult prisoner is 2,800 riel per day, while children living with their mothers are allocated 1,400 riel.
*Name changed to protect child’s anonymity