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Government: Jail crowding a tough issue

Government: Jail crowding a tough issue

THE Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons said in a report this week that “significant progress” has been made in the Kingdom’s prison reform effort, though it acknowledged the daunting challenged posed by overcrowding.

The ministry’s report comes as rights group Licadho this week published its own document detailing the problem of overcrowding in the Kingdom’s jails and warning that Cambodia could have the most overcrowded prison system in the world within a decade if inmate population growth continues near current levels.

Released at a conference with government officials and development organisations on Sunday and Monday, the report from the prisons department cites improvements in areas including healthcare, rehabilitation and infrastructure. Such gains are threatened, however, by “severe overcrowding” nationwide, the report adds.

“Overcrowding has impacted upon the capacity to maintain the physical facilities, provide adequate healthcare and other services such as water supply, the sewage system, staff roster and routine,” the report states.

The prison department pegs Cambodia’s inmate population as of June at 13,944, a 4 percent increase from December and well beyond the system’s official capacity of 8,000. Prisoners held prior to sentencing formed almost a third of this group.

Heng Hak, director of the prisons department, said Monday that his ministry had seen “a lot of improvements” since it began working on prison reform in 2008, placing special emphasis on the introduction of rehabilitation and vocational training programmes.

“These reforms can reduce crime, and they give prisoners the chance to go outside of their cells rather than staying in their cells all day like in the past,” Heng Hak said. A total of 5,544 prisoners participated in farming and construction projects in 2009, the prison department says, while 5,490 prisoners participated in education and vocational training programmes.

Christophe Peschoux, country representative for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, praised the prison department for being “very open to reform, very open to new ideas”, but emphasised the need for broad policy changes to address overcrowding.

Echoing recommendations from Licadho’s report on overcrowding, Peschoux said justice officials needed to consider “alternative modes of imprisonment”, such as community service and work-release programmes, and rely less on pretrial detention, particularly for petty offences.

The prison department report said 428 prisoners in 2009 had been identified as serving “excessive” pretrial detention. Heng Hak said his department was aware of the issue, but that it had proved difficult to address because of a lack of lawyers and judicial resources.

Jeff Vize, a consultant for Licadho, agreed with Heng Hak’s assessment, saying that responsibility for overcrowding went well beyond the prison department.

“It’s not really in their hands, who goes to jail,” Vize said, and emphasised the need for an “entire criminal justice system solution”.

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