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Interior Ministry admits to prison drug problem

A man consumes methadone at a clinic in Phnom Penh in 2014. The Ministry of Health has devised a plan to support prisons with drug rehabilitation programs for inmates.
A man consumes methadone at a clinic in Phnom Penh in 2014. The Ministry of Health has devised a plan to support prisons with drug rehabilitation programs for inmates. Pha Lina

Interior Ministry admits to prison drug problem

In what one commentator described as “a bold step”, the Interior Ministry’s prisons department has seemingly admitted it has a drug problem, and last week sent a letter requesting the Health Ministry’s assistance in tackling it.

Prisons department operations director Be Tealeng said yesterday that of the 18,800 people currently in Cambodia’s prison system 5,650, nearly a third, are doing time for drug-use charges. The notorious Prey Sar prison has the highest number of substance abusers, followed by Siem Reap and Battambang, he said.

The prisons department issued a statement through its Facebook page on Friday announcing the creation of a working group to tackle the issue, promising to provide rehabilitation and detoxification treatment to detainees; to explore the possibility of separating addicted inmates from their non-drug dependent peers; to root out drug distribution networks inside and outside of Cambodia’s prisons; to identify persistent drug users; and to collect evidence relating to drug use to be passed to officials responsible for administrative punishment.

Prisons department spokesman Sorn Keo had said just last month that Cambodian prisons did not have a drug-trafficking problem.

One month later, authorities uncovered a massive crystal meth trafficking operation being run from inside Prey Sar prison. However, Keo’s position remained unchanged yesterday, though he did allow that drug use continued inside prisons.

“It is not trafficking. Trafficking means there is a broker, a seller and a buyer. But this is the secret bringing, distribution and use in the prison,” he said.

David Harding, who has been working on substance abuse issues in Cambodia for more than a decade, said that drug use in the Kingdom’s prisons is by no means a new issue, although dealing with it is.

“Relatively few organisations work in prisons and none work with drug issues in prisons,” Harding said. “What I will say is there have been reports which were acknowledged by the prison service related to the smuggling of drugs into prisons for the last four, five years.”

While expressing misgivings about drug users being imprisoned rather than placed in treatment centres, Harding said Cambodia’s prisons aren’t unique in their struggle with drugs and added that the recent announcement about plans to tackle the issue was commendable.

“Every country that has drug issues, and the vast majority do, has reports of drug use in prisons. It’s not a matter of shame, it’s not a matter singling out Cambodia, it’s just a thing that exists,” Harding said.

“Doing a harm reduction program in prisons would be an acknowledgement there are drugs in prisons, which is a big step and a bold step for any government.”

Health Minister Mam Bun Heng yesterday referred questions about the new plan to ministry spokespeople, who were not available for comment.

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