Chin Pheu, aged four, has another three years to spend in jail
AROUND the time of his seventh birthday, four-year old Chin Pheu will get a gift
most children take for granted: his freedom.
For the past year, Pheu has been the youngest inhabitant of Kandal Prison in Takmao
alongside his mother, who is serving a four-year sentence for murder.
But rather than a miscarriage of justice, Pheu's case is an example of one of the
more curious rights granted to women under the Cambodian legal code.
"Under Cambodian law it's a mother's legal right to keep her young children
with her if she goes to prison," explained Yim Po, Director of the Cambodian
Children's Protection Organization. "It's wrong for a child to have to go to
prison, but the law recognizes the need for a young child to not be separated from
The legal permission for mothers in Cambodia to take their children with them behind
bars is codified in Article 18 of the Procedures on Administration of Prisons, which
reads "Children may live with their mother in prison until they are six years
old ... When living in prison children should be able to leave and enter the prison
according to prison rules."
Pheu's road to Kandal Prison is a twisted tale of betrayal, jealousy and revenge
that began when his mother, Sun Deur, murdered the nine-month old love child of an
illicit union between her husband and her sister.
Fearful of her sister and now ex-husband seeking vengeance against her by harming
her son, Deur told the Post that she opted to trade Pheu's freedom for the relative
safety of the armed guards and barbed wire of Kandal Prison.
"In September my husband came here and told me he wanted to take Pheu back home
but I refused," the pale, shy, former Kien Svay market vendor said softly. "I'm
afraid that my husband's second wife will mistreat my son."
Pheu is not the only preschooler languishing at the side of a parent behind the walls
of a penal institution in Cambodia.
According to Eva Galabru of the human rights NGO Licadho, Pheu is just one of at
least 20 Cambodian children, from newborns to five-year-olds, spending their childhoods
accompanying their mothers through a grim daily regimen of prison labor, lockdowns
and unrelenting surveillance.
Although Licadho attempts to address the needs of Cambodia's child prisoners through
the organization's prison visitation program, Galabru says more is needed.
Kandal Prison Director Muong Sam Arth is the first to point out that his facility
is far from an ideal environment for raising a child, and shakes his head disapprovingly
when he describes the seven other women convicts of the prison with whom Pheu spends
most of his waking hours.
"Murderers, acid-attackers, child-traffickers, thieves," Arth said of Deur
and Pheu's dormitory-mates. "This is not the place for a child."
Arth speaks from experience. In the six years that he has been Kandal Prison Director,
Pheu is the second child to become part of the prison community for which he is responsible.
"The last time, a woman inmate gave birth in the prison," he said. "But
in this prison there is no medicine and no doctor on call in case of any emergency."
Deur has already been made tragically aware of the consequences that the prison's
poor hygiene and lack of effective medical care can have on a child. Three months
after arriving at the prison with Pheu, her two year-old daughter died of complications
arising from a fever.
Arth's concern about the welfare of the youthful charges under his supervision is
not entirely humanitarian: because the chronically cash-strapped Cambodian government
does not allocate any funds for the food, clothing and medical care of inmate's children,
responsibility for their maintenance falls on him.
"I have to pay for everything myself, using my own money and money earned from
the sale of vegetables from the prison garden," he said.
More troubling for Arth is the potential effects Pheu's incarceration might have
on his intellectual development and future educational success.
"I'm really concerned about Pheu not being able to go to school," Arth
said. "He may be okay ... His mother might be released [early] in the next two
or three years and at six or seven years of age I hope it won't be too late for him
to begin learning."
In the last two months Deur has apparently recognized the harm her decision to keep
Pheu with her behind bars might inflict on him, and says that she has unsuccessfully
tried to convince Pheu to move to a state orphanage.
"I feel so sorry for Pheu [because] he has to live here," she said. "But
when I try to talk to him about going to live in an orphanage he gets very upset."
Pheu's reluctance to leave his mother to prison life may be born from a well-founded
fear of what might become of her after he leaves.
"Last week her husband came here to ask her permission to divorce her and marry
a new wife," Arth confided. "She got extremely depressed and then tried
to commit suicide."
While his mother struggles with her own demons, Pheu appears at first glance to behave
much like any other four-year-old.
"He's a normal kid ... he plays with the sons and daughters of the guards,"
Arth said. "He only gets upset when he gets out of sight of his mother."