THE road to Pursat province’s Correctional Centre 4 narrows as it wends past rice paddies and into the forests of the Cardamom Mountains, stretching less than two metres across at some points over rocky, loosely-packed earth.
Prison officials hope the facility will one day house 2,500 prisoners who will receive agricultural training as they serve their out sentences. Observers say, however, that there is more rough terrain ahead before these ambitious plans can be realised.
Prisoners first arrived at CC4 in January, and 154 were housed there as of last month, according to local rights group Licadho. As part of what the government says is a nation-wide rollout of vocational training programmes in correctional centres, inmates at CC4 spend their days farming corn, cassava and other crops.
This arrangement is in stark contrast to other detention facilities, which rights groups have criticised for confining prisoners to their cells for days on end, with little opportunity for work or exercise.
As prisoners passed behind him carrying buckets of water and farming equipment last month, CC4 director Hin Sophal extolled the virtues of the agriculture programme and spoke of his ambitions for the facility.
“I want this prison to be run according to international standards, with five branches that can house 2,500 prisoners in total,” Hin Sophal said, surveying the grounds from his temporary office.
Prisoners, though perhaps fearful of voicing complaints, said CC4 was a clear improvement over the prisons where they had previously been held.
“When we work we can see the clouds, and that makes us feel happy,” said Heng Chamroeun, 23, who was previously housed at Pursat provincial prison.
This sentiment was echoed by 26-year-old Nou Rotha, formerly of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, who alluded to the abuse of prisoners that rights groups say is widespread.
“I don’t have any desire to try and escape from this prison because it doesn’t have a punishment room like Prey Sar,” he said.
Nevertheless, if CC4 is to expand to accept offenders serving long sentences, it will need to add concrete walls to ring the facility, Hin Sophal said.
CC4’s proposed expansion – which has not been finalised by the government – has already drawn concern. Christophe Peschoux, the country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said a planned juvenile wing at the isolated site would be extremely difficult for parents to visit. In a report set to be released today, meanwhile, Licadho says previously floated plans for commercial agriculture at CC4 could violate Cambodian and international law.
Even in its current form, CC4 faces difficulties. Nou Ratha said prisoners often do not have clean drinking water, which officials must bring in from elsewhere. As the rainy season makes traversing the dirt road to the site more difficult, officials may face challenges transporting prisoners and granting them urgent medical care.
Jeffrey Lum, a medical adviser with Prison Fellowship Cambodia, said that while the prisoners appeared to be sustaining themselves on the crops they farm, water and sanitation remain challenging issues. Even in view of these difficulties, however, he said prisoners at CC4 “seem to be happier” than those at other facilities.
“I sense that they are quite willing to work, to get out,” he said as he conducted check-ups on prisoners queued up outside one of the dormitories. “Just to do something.”