Cambodia's badly overcrowded prison population leapt by nearly 20 per cent in the first 10 months of this year, government data show, raising serious health concerns.
The figures, released by the Interior Ministry’s general department of prisons yesterday, show that there were 17,522 prisoners in jails across the country at the end of October, compared with 14,780 in detention in December 2014, an increase of more than 18 per cent.
In September 2014, a report from rights group Licadho pegged the nation’s prison occupancy rate at 179 per cent of capacity.
Nut Savanea, spokesman for the general department of prisons, said yesterday that the spike was due to increased drug arrests and a lethargic justice system.
The lack of alternative forms of punishment has led to a large number of imprisonments for minor drug offences, he added.
“Among the detainees, more than 30 per cent were involved with drug crimes. It’s hard to draw a conclusion about whether more people are committing crimes or whether the authorities are being more effective than before,” he said. “There’s no clear-cut answer.”
Only about a third of those in prison had received a final verdict in their cases, with many kept under lock and key in pre-trial detention.
“It’s the way it’s done in the courts,” Savanea said. Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, which runs a prison-monitoring project in the Kingdom, cautioned that placing more detainees in Cambodia’s already overcrowded prison system would have serious health implications for inmates.
He added that Licadho had found many prisoners suffer from respiratory problems, sleep disorders, food poisoning and ailments caused by poor sanitation.
“They lack fresh air, and if an epidemic breaks out, it spreads quickly and widely. Living in those stuffy cells leads to stress, which causes heart and blood pressure problems,” he said.
“The increase [in the number of inmates] is not a good sign. A country with the rule of law does not imprison many people.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former prisoner who recently completed a 10-year stretch in one of the country’s most well-known jails said he was incarcerated in a cell with about 70 other prisoners.
“It was cramped and hard to live in. It was very hot, and we got itchy and spread it to one another,” he said.
Savanea admitted that the government would need to find more long-lasting solutions to criminal behaviour if it was to end its overcrowding problem.
“Our country’s resources are still limited. But we need to think of other measures we can take which are more economical and long-lasting,” he said.
He also called on communities to do more to prevent and report crimes.