Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kingdom’s first privately run prison would allow the rich to upgrade

Kingdom’s first privately run prison would allow the rich to upgrade

Prisoners sit in the courtyard of Prey Sar prison under guard in 2009.
Prisoners sit in the courtyard of Prey Sar prison under guard in 2009. Heng Chivoan

Kingdom’s first privately run prison would allow the rich to upgrade

Wealthy inmates held within Cambodia’s chronically overcrowded prison system would be able to pay for upgraded cells at a new, privately built and managed complex in Phnom Penh under a proposal unveiled last week by Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

Speaking at an Interior Ministry meeting on Wednesday, Kheng, also a deputy prime minister, said the government already has a company interested in building a prison, which, he added, had been approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

He initially said the facilities would not be “like a hotel”, though later said “we can call it a hotel or detention centre”.

“The prisoners and the families who have money, they can [pay] rent and stay there,” Kheng said, adding such a facility would also generate state revenue.

Kheng said the suggestion – which was yesterday slammed by human rights advocates – drew inspiration from “modern prisons” he saw in Australia.

He recounted visiting one such prison in Canberra where guards watched inmates cook barbeque and hour-long conjugal visits were permitted in the “freedom room”.

“It would help us not to use state budget to build detention centre infrastructure,” he said of the plan.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, Nuth Savna, said yesterday that the complex would be in Phnom Penh, though a final location had not been chosen.

Savna noted Prey Sar prison had little space for a new building and that City Hall had suggested three sites.

“We, the prison department, thought that it might be good if we can build other facilities where better-off prisoners can afford and stay until the end of their prison term,” Savna said.

Savna acknowledged potential human rights concerns, though stressed the proposal was “just an idea” and further studies would assess the impact of the project, which he said was first floated over a year ago..

He did, however, suggest the kind of prisoner who might, under such a scheme, hope to upgrade to better lodgings.

“We can rent to those who have money, like Duong Chhay and others,” he said, referring to the son of a powerful business tycoon imprisoned for four months last year for assault.

“They are used to living in good conditions and they may want to continue living in good conditions. So they have that option.”

Cambodia’s prisons have come under repeated attack for endemic bribery, human rights abuses and squalid living conditions, often endured by those without the cash to pay for comforts.

In a comprehensive 2015 report, rights group Licadho, which inspected 18 of the Kingdom’s prisons, found cash flow “dictated” prison life, with inmates forced to pay bribes for everything from food, water, daylight and fresh air to medical treatment, family visits family, recreation and vocational training.

It also found wealthy inmates routinely paid for better cells, drugs, alcohol and prostitutes, and noted reports of “VIP cells” for well-connected prisoners.

Billy Tai, a former adviser to the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), called the plan to allow wealthy prisoners to upgrade “absurd”.

“If they are building a first-class prison and then the rest of the prison population go cattle class, I mean, this really for me demonstrates that there’s no understanding of some of these issues about prison conditions whatsoever,” Tai said.

“So the inherent economic divides within the prison system are so entrenched they don’t even have a problem making it official.”

Via email, Wan-Hea Lee, Cambodia representative for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, said though prisoners with disposable income could make themselves more comfortable, such differential treatment based on payments was concerning.

“The human rights standards require the humane treatment of all persons deprived of their liberty regardless of their ability to pay,” she said.

Cambodia’s prison population leapt nearly 20 per cent in the first 10 months of 2015, hitting 17,522 prisoners in October, according to Interior Ministry figures.

The country, which has four national correctional centres, 23 municipal and provincial prisons and a military prison, has an official capacity of just 8,500 inmates, Licadho’s report stated.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the Kingdom’s penal system, where privilege comes via “a wad of cash”, was “at crisis point”.

“The problem is that there is so little left for the vast majority who can’t pay – as seen in the chronic over-crowding, lack of basic services, abysmal food and lack of potable water,” he said.

Ly Seav Minh, a land dispute activist imprisoned in Prey Sar after a politically connected company claimed her land, yesterday recounted the already entrenched divide between rich and poor inside, saying higher sleeping platforms were sold for $50.

“Prison is not a place that deters people from their past bad actions,” Minh said.

MOST VIEWED

  • Purging Sihanoukville’s past with a new masterplan

    Amid illicit activities, haphazard development and abandoned projects, the coastal city of Sihanouk province needs a reset to move forward. A new masterplan might be the answer to shake off its seemingly mucky image to become the Shenzhen of the south Gun toting, shootouts, police

  • Chinese may be first in tourism revival: PM

    Cambodia's tourism industry is gearing up to roll out the red carpet for Chinese travellers after Prime Minister Hun Sen on September 17 indicated that the Kingdom could soon throw open its doors to international holidaymakers vaccinated against Covid-19 – starting with guests from China. Cambodia Chinese

  • Four-pillar approach in reopening of tourism: PM

    Cambodia is drawing up a four-strategy approach to promptly restore domestic and international tourism activity and put the industry on a transition pathway to a sustainable and inclusive model that is resistant to future crises, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen. The prime minister made

  • Airline says ready for green light to reopen international tourism

    Sky Angkor Airline Co Ltd on September 21 said it is ready to transport South Korean and Chinese tourists to the Kingdom once the Cambodian government makes good on plans to reopen its borders to vaccinated travellers. The Siem Reap-based airline made the remark during a

  • Tourism concerns laid bare

    To ensure the success of plans to reopen the tourism market for international visitors, Cambodia must pay utmost attention to two primary determinants – the ongoing paradigm shift in domestic tourism services towards the ‘new normal’, and the factors influencing choices of destinations among foreign holidaymakers.

  • Cambodian bride ‘badly treated, held captive’ by Chinese man seeks help

    A Cambodian woman who travelled to China to marry a Chinese man there was “badly treated” by her husband’s family and then had to be rescued and will be returned to Cambodia to ensure her safety. The rescue operation came about after the 25-year-old