A remote jail opened more than five years ago to lessen chronic overcrowding in the prison system is also operating as a farming business, where free labour is seemingly used to yield big profits for senior staff.
When Correctional Centre 4 (CC4) opened its gates in January 2010, it was slated to become the largest prison in the country, with space for about 2,500 inmates. But most of the complex was never completed, while large swathes of the grounds are allegedly used by a small number of officials for personal gain.
The Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons (GDP) touted CC4 as a solution to the well-documented issue of overcrowding, which has left inmates across the country – including those in pre-trial detention, children and the mentally ill – in squalid conditions, without adequate food or amenities.
But more than five years on, the prison, which is situated on a sprawling plot of land in rural Pursat province, is home to fewer than 250 inmates. Purported plans to build infrastructure to house thousands more never materialised.
“Originally, five ‘branches’ were planned for construction and each was proposed to house 500 prisoners, but this has not happened. Only two ‘branches’ have been constructed and the capacity of each is significantly less than 500,” said Nou Sam An, prison supervisor at local rights group Licadho.
The failure to accommodate the intended numbers means “there has been no appreciable difference in the prison overcrowding rates across the country since CC4 accepted its first prisoners”, he said, adding that the rate of overcrowding remained at more than 170 per cent.
Unlike most of the country’s prisons, when you approach CC4, you are greeted not by walls and razor wire, but hundreds of acres of farmland.
In March, rows of cassava plants stretched across the grounds. Inmates who had worked the fields in the early morning and late afternoon had retired indoors to wait for the harvest.
Numerous requests over the past year to gain official access to CC4 have been ignored or rejected.
Last month, the cassava had been harvested and sold, but inmates were put back to work, using sickles to trim grass and hedges on the dirt road that leads up to the facility.
Prison guards, who were visibly intoxicated, sat nearby sipping beer and eating salted fish.
One convict joined them, a beer in hand. “We work, but we are not paid,” Sopheak* later said, as he rejoined the other prisoners on the work detail.
Like most of the men at CC4, Sopheak is a low-security inmate, two months away from completing an eight-year prison sentence.
He said that he had no idea how much total income the crops bring in. He knows only that they are sold to local businesspeople who negotiate rates with senior prison officials.
“We, the prisoners, just complete work and we don’t get anything for it.”
Another inmate said he felt lucky to have been selected to work on the plantations because it gave him the opportunity to leave his cell.
But, he added, he had not received payment of any kind for his work.
“I’m really exhausted after the work, but . . . we are the prisoners, so we have no rights to make demands, because we are afraid of abuse,” he said.
During the interview, a guard approached and, speaking over the inmate, insisted the prisoners were paid for their labour. But when questioned about the details, he had no answers.
“Only the boss [the prison director] knows about the money, since he is the one distributing the cash. The officials like me don’t know,” said the guard, who declined to give his name.
He and the other prison staff threatened Post journalists with arrest before ordering reporters away from the facility.
A former prisoner who spent three months at CC4 recalled this week the daily shifts he was required to work on the farmland, for which he says he was never paid.
“Besides growing cassava, we cleared the forest and built roads. We had nothing else to do there.”
Yem Pov, the former director of CC4 who was transferred this week to Kampong Cham Provincial Prison, said profits each season from the cassava amount to about $9,800.
A source with knowledge of the prison’s workings said profits for 2013 were about $14,000.
The 2011 Prison Law states that a prison is entitled to enter into private contracts to “generate employment for the prison industry, handicraft and farming programs, and is entitled to enter into a contract to sell the products”.
The law says that a sub-decree governing “the use of income generated by the prison industry” would be introduced, but no regulation seems to have been passed.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Prison Procedures stipulate that prisoners may receive up to 25 per cent of profits gained from their work. They should receive between 1,000 and 2,000 riel ($0.25 to $0.50) for each day worked, which can be paid upon their release.
Pov this week insisted that the profits from the business were divided evenly, with half split among prisoners and prison staff, a quarter going to senior prison officials, and a quarter held by the prison itself. “The prisoners who don’t do the task will not receive any money; the ones who do will,” he said.
But none of the current or former inmates interviewed for this story had received any financial payment or other benefits, such as reduced sentences, for their efforts.
“All the money is utilised by the prison director for himself and his officials,” Sopheak alleged.
Prison guards told the Post that they received some money for their part in the program, but did not detail how much. They, too, said Pov, handled the cash.
Sam An of Licadho yesterday said the use of the program to generate profits for officials undermined any “legitimate rehabilitation function”.
“The coercive and exploitative conditions in CC4’s farm labour program violate prisoners’ fundamental rights,” he said, “and these conditions must be improved for the program to have any chance of genuinely contributing to the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners.”
*Names of current inmates have been changed to protect their identity.