A 41-year-old prisoner died of a heart attack in Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 1 on February 15, but only after he spent more than two hours stuck in his overcrowded cell waiting for medical treatment, his fellow prisoners allege.
CC1 administrator Khuth Vuthy, who confirmed the death, said yesterday that the prisoner – whom he could not name at the time – had been serving a 15-year sentence for murder handed down by the Kampong Cham Provincial Court “sometime in the past two years”. He had been transferred to CC1 last week to await his appeal hearing on Monday.
“But he died due to [a] heart attack … while he was being sent to be rescued at the medical centre in prison,” Vuthy said.
However, fellow prisoners say the situation wasn’t that simple.
According to Tan Senghak – the disgraced tycoon now serving nearly a decade on charges of drug trafficking and fraud – three hours passed between the time the inmate began showing symptoms and the time a guard finally opened the door to take him to the sick ward.
“The reason he died was because the prison guards did not immediately open the door and bring him to the prison’s medical centre for rescue and treatment,” Senghak said yesterday.
“They let the victim stay longer in the cell, and sent him to the medical centre when he was almost dead already.”
Senghak, who resides in a cell adjacent to the dead inmate’s, said that on Saturday the prison had only been staffed by a skeleton crew, owing to the public holiday on Friday.
About an hour after the man first became ill, his symptoms worsened. His cellmates raised the alarm, calling for guards, but even after they arrived, there was a lengthy delay before he was let out of the cell, which houses some 40 prisoners, Senghak said.
“When the victim got seriously sick he was not immediately sent by prison guards to the hospital for treatment, but was left in his cell for about two hours,” he said.
According to the US government’s National Institutes of Health, quick treatment is key to surviving a heart attack, and about half of those who die from heart attacks die within an hour, and before reaching a hospital.
Vuthy, the administrator, did not offer a specific timeline of events, but acknowledged the response had been too slow and that the prison’s doctor had not been on the premises that day until he was alerted by guards to the prisoner’s condition.
“He got very seriously sick, and he was late in being sent to the hospital to be rescued and treated, so we could not save his life,” he said.
Yem Polin, another CC1 prisoner, maintained yesterday that overcrowding in the cell – long a concern in Cambodia’s correctional system – had exacerbated the victim’s existing health problems, and didn’t help once the heart attack began.
“His health was poor. He got seriously sick because he was just sent from Kampong Cham Provincial Prison to stay in a Prey Sar prison cell, which was so crowded, and had so many prisoners staying in it,” Polin said.
“He died because it was crowded, and there wasn’t enough air in the prison cell,” he added.
Am Sam Ath, a senior technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said that his organisation was still unsure of the exact cause of death but will investigate the case.
Sharon Critoph, Licadho’s prisons consultant, said in an email yesterday that even though the official cause of death was unknown, “the denial of appropriate and timely health care has certainly led to unnecessary inmate deaths in Cambodia”.
“Those with serious health problems are regularly transferred to hospital too late, because their conditions were not recognised or were misdiagnosed and wrongly treated,” she added.
“Unfortunately prison health posts usually lack sufficient medication, and staff are often poorly trained. Inmates regularly report to Licadho that medical care and medication is only provided to those inmates who can afford to pay.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE