The number of people being held in Cambodian prisons has reached epidemic proportions, leading to overcrowding and corruption, and causing families to suffer unnecessarily, claims a report by local NGO Licadho.
However, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin rejected the findings, saying the rise in the prison population actually helped society and families and protected criminal investigations.
The report released on Thursday, Time For Bail: Ending Needless Mass Detention, details how the underuse of bail results in excessively long periods of pre-trial detention. This, it said, has far-reaching consequences on the lives of individuals, their families and communities.
The report said imprisonment led to the stigmatisation of those being held and caused a loss of income, leading to the breakdown of families. In some cases, defendants are found innocent but have nonetheless spent a long period of time behind bars.
The Prison Project, working in 18 of Cambodia’s 28 prisons, showed that 25,926 people are being held in the Kingdom’s jails, with 9,527 or 37 per cent in pre-trial detention.
“In some cases, when sentences are finally handed down, inmates have already been detained for longer than the sentencing period of the crime with which they were charged,” the report said.
However, Malin said incarceration did not have negative consequences on the families and communities of those detained, but rather helped society. He said the increase in the number of prisoners had been largely driven by a nationwide anti-drugs campaign.
“The purpose of detention is to maintain peace, safety and security in society, and for all parties involved, including witnesses assisting the investigation. This does not harm families and communities."
“If we permit [defendants] to stay outside the prison, they might cause more problems to families and society, and that would affect the investigation procedure,” he said.
Malin admitted that pre-trial detention had helped cause the increase in prisoner numbers and led to overcrowding. But he said it was necessary to ensure security and social order, and guarantee the safety of those
involved in criminal cases.
The Ministry of Justice, he said, was studying articles of the Criminal Code with an eye to enact punishment outside of prison.
The report found that severe overcrowding, excessive pre-trial detention, disproportionate and unjust sentencing, violations of prisoners’ rights and a rampant culture of corruption within the prison system have all contributed to the “appalling” state of Cambodia’s jails.
An already dire situation had been worsened dramatically since the start of last year, largely due to the government’s “war on drugs”, the report said.
It continued that Correctional Center 1, the men’s prison in Phnom Penh commonly known as Prey Sar, houses 6,711 inmates despite being built to hold just 2,050.
“This prison houses more than three times the number of inmates it was built to accommodate. Almost 50 per cent of the inmates were temporary detainees, pending trial."
“Most of them were qualified to be released on bail but did not get an opportunity due to a lack of legal assistance or they did not know about their right to apply for it.”
The report claimed that due to the government’s “war on drugs”, the numbers of infants living behind bars with their mothers had increased dramatically, from 30 minors at the end of 2015 to 138 in July this year.
It claimed that children in prison were seriously and negatively affected in their physical and mental development, while many pregnant women did not receive healthcare before or after childbirth.
The report told of a woman, who requested anonymity, who said police arrested and imprisoned her over a drug-related crime while she was five months pregnant, despite her protestations that she had never used or sold drugs.
“Even though I was pregnant, I was not given any extra food or any medical care. I don’t have enough nappies or clothes for my baby. I never get any soap to clean my baby, so I am always worried that she might get sick,” she said.
Prison Department spokesperson Sorn Keo said: “[When it comes to] pregnant women in the prison, we follow regulations. I think maybe there was an individual who didn’t follow the regulations. If this was due to corruption, we will punish those concerned.”
Keo agreed that the number of inmates in Cambodia’s prisons had reached an unprecedented level, and that overcrowding affected prison officers as well as inmates, calling the situation “difficult”.
“It is difficult. Overcrowding causes problems for both the health and work of our officers. [But] if there is a detention warrant [from the court], we have to detain.”
The Licadho report requested that the courts use prison sentences appropriately and only as a last resort, while they should prioritise trials featuring defendants who were vulnerable, such as pregnant women and mothers with children.
Licadho investigation officer Am Sam Ath said: “We saw [while compiling the report] that some [inmates’] crimes were misdemeanours, and [they were in situations] where [imprisonment would] not affect the court procedure or [public] order.
“[In such cases] we should consider an option to allow bail … to allow [defendants] to live with their families to help support them … What is important is that [we] think about the principle of freedom as it will help reduce prison overcrowding.”