Sitting on a bench in the shade, legs crossed and cigarette in hand, Sam* is a picture of calm.
He takes a deep puff. “This place is not that bad,” he says.
It’s break time and from the yard come sounds of men and women at play. Some bat around a shuttlecock in a game of badminton. On the side, a man drops to the ground and starts doing push-ups.
Those a little less enthused about physical exercise queue up at the corner stall serving up snacks and cool beverages to an ever-growing line.
It might look like a schoolyard at recess, but this is the Police Judiciare (PJ) prison, a correctional facility for tough-as-nails convicts at the Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters in the capital’s Russey Keo district.
Imprisoned within the facility’s two buildings are drug dealers, tycoons and their scions – widely known to be prisoners with connections and wealth – who have fallen afoul of the law. Among the recent arrivals are Duong Chhay and Duong Kimlong, sons of immigration police official Okhna Duong Ngiep, who are currently being detained while awaiting trial for violent assault.
Jointly run by the Municipal Police and the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons (GDP), PJ prison is an anomaly in Cambodia’s oft-criticised prison system.
For starters, among the 18 prisons that rights group Licadho monitors in the country, PJ is the only one that is under capacity – at the end of April, there were 154 inmates at the prison, according to statistics from Licadho. The prison has a capacity for about 190 inmates.
In contrast, most facilities in Cambodia’s prison system are grossly overcrowded. The 27 prisons across the country are about 70 per cent over capacity, according to a government report. The GDP squeezes some 15,397 inmates into facilities that only have space for about 9,000.
“At PJ, as at other prisons, they detain all kinds of prisoners – but most of the prisoners who are detained in there are known to be rich,” said Am Sam Ath, senior investigator with Licadho.
At PJ, Sam – a foreign convict who has spent the greater part of a decade behind bars there for drug offences – lives in a relatively spacious room with amenities from the outside world.
“We put in bunk beds, a TV and a gas stove so we can cook meals,” said Sam, who shares these creature comforts with four other inmates.
As for what’s available, the sky’s the limit, he says. “The only thing you need is money.”
Even transfers between prisons are possible, and they cost about $1,500 each, he adds.
While rights groups the Post spoke to said they have no physical evidence of such deals being brokered, they have received similar accounts from prisoners since they started monitoring prisons.
Sam Ath told the Post he used to hear family members of prisoners lament that they had to bribe guards for their relatives to get exercise time or move to bigger and more comfortable cells. Those without money would be stuck in cramped conditions – in “narrow, overcrowded cells”.
The US Department of State’s 2012 Human Rights Report released late last month bolsters these claims. The report said prison authorities were known to take bribes for “preferential treatment, including access to visitors, transfer to better cells, and the opportunity to leave cells during the day.”
While by no means cushy – inmates at PJ prison still live a regimented lifestyle, and there are set times for visits, work, exercise and meals – it remains a far cry from what their counterparts contend with inside Prey Sar prison, miles across town.
In Prey Sar, the prison population is severely over capacity, with 3,729 prisoners cramped into two facilities that have room for only 1,800.
As recently as last June, prisoners there had no access to clean tap water and had to pay exorbitant amounts for drinking water.
There are no problems of that sort in PJ.
“Look over there in the corner,” says Sam, pointing to a bespectacled prison employee he calls Heng, dressed in a freshly pressed white shirt and trousers. “He’s taking orders for food from the outside.”
Heng does not wear a uniform like the rest of the guards, nor does he brandish a badge with the police insignia – what he has though, is a notebook filled with tomorrow’s orders.
But, perhaps because of the breed of inmates at PJ, these creature comforts come at a steep price.
“Everything here is taxed – about 30 per cent,” says Sam. “Every 10,000 riel we spend we have to pay the guards 3,000.”
Sam himself spends close to $200 a month on food and cigarettes. “It’s expensive – but the food here, I can’t eat it,” he said, referring to the rice and vegetable stew prisoners are served daily.
But PJ prison has a reputarion for more hardcore contraband.
In 2011, the chief of PJ prison’s A building – Choub Seang – was convicted on charges of drug distribution within the prison. An inmate also charged in the case told the court then that he had been using heroin and yama two to three times a week for more than a year.
When contacted by the Post this week, Kuy Bunsorn, director general of the GDP, said the prison detained all manner of prisoners – not only the rich.
“If compared to CCI or CC2 [Prey Sar], PJ is the worst place,” Bunsorn said, before hanging up abruptly.
Sam, though, would appear to disagree. Pulling the last of his cigarette, he said: “It’s still prison, but at least it’s nothing like Prey Sar.”
*Sam’s name has been changed to protect his identity.