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New jails fail to relieve the pressure

New jails fail to relieve the pressure

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Prisoners at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh in June last year.

The construction of new prisons is failing to alleviate pressure on the Kingdom’s overburdened system, a human rights group said yesterday, as new data revealed a surge in the prison population over the first five months of this year.

According to a report released by rights group Licadho, Cambodia’s prisons are “bursting at the seams” with at least 12 facilities out of 18 monitored by the organisation at or near double their intended capacity.

“Cambodia will not be able to build itself out of the current overcrowding crisis. The hole is too deep – and it’s getting deeper,” the report said. “As of April 25 2011 Cambodia’s total prison population stood at 15,001. That represents a 12.6 percent increase since March 2010.”

Pre-trial detainees accounted for 36 percent of that population, the report said.

The paper stated that while the population in prisons monitored by Licadho shrank marginally between July and December last year, it surged by 9 percent over the first five months of this year.

Licadho prison consultant Jeff Vize said yesterday that the government had made little progress in implementing previous recommendations on non-custodial measures for pre-trial detainees and convicted offenders.

“The [government] needs to … take a step back and re-evaluate the over-reliance on incarceration as the only punishment for crime,” he said. “They need to stop locking up some of these people.”

Non-custodial sentencing was unheard of, bail underutilised, and a parole system authorised in the Code of Criminal Procedure had not been implemented, according to the report.

Vize said that building new prisons would not solve the issue of overcrowding.

“The [government] would have to build [prisons] at an insane rate. Even for a wealthy developing country, it would be hard to build at that rate,” he said.

“It’s an under funded, overcrowded system, so everything becomes scarcer - from space to food to medical care to recreation space.”

The report detailed new areas for concern over the past year, including the transfer of pre-trial inmates to a local drug centre, imprisonment of those who cannot – or do not – pay criminal fines, and disproportionate sentencing for certain crimes.

In what Licadho dubbed a “perverse scheme” to mask severe overcrowding, 38 pre-trial detainees – all of whom were arrested on drug charges – were transferred from Banteay Meanchey provincial prison to the Chivith Thmey Phnom Bak Drug Rehabilitation Centre in April, after being released on bail partly on condition that they complete a drug treatment programme.

“Sending pre-trial detainees to be held in drug detention centres is a dead-end solution: it simply feeds the creation of a parallel prison system,” the report said.

In another case, an 18-year-old man was arrested in Svay Rieng province in December last year and sentenced to a year in prison for stealing a chicken. “Surely prison is not the only way to deal with the theft of a US$5 chicken,” the report said.

Sam Prachea Manith, director of cabinet at the Ministry of Justice, said yesterday that he could not comment directly on the report but supported measures to reduce overcrowding in jails.

“I think it is a good idea that NGOs want to request that the courts take measures to release [detainees] on bail to reduce [prison] overcrowding,” he said yesterday.

Officials from the general department of Prisons at the Ministry of Interior could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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