From behind the bars of their cells in the Kingdom’s biggest prison, mothers can watch their children play in a tiny playground inside the shabby building, which is surrounded by narrow gardens where the women can grow extra food.
“Every day, I see only the prison roof and the trees inside the fence,” says Dong, a five-year-old boy who was born inside Prey Sar Correctional Centre 2.
“I have never known anything outside this prison,” Dong said during an interview last week.
The interview followed a request to the Interior Ministry and, subsequently, to the prison chief.
They agreed, on the condition that no photographs be taken and no tape recording be made.
Dong said he lived with his mother in the prison because they had no relatives.
He and the 10 other children in the prison leave the cells every Monday to Friday morning for classes an NGO has arranged for them inside the prison.
Quick to smile, Dong says: “I enjoy studying more than staying in the cell with my mother because at school there are toys to play with.”
He says he would like to leave the prison and be free, but he doesn’t want to leave his mother.
“I dare not go outside without my mother because I am afraid they will not allow me to return to live with her.”
Dong sounded relaxed and unafraid while speaking, despite being surrounded during the interview by five prison guards – four men and one woman – who monitored the conversation, as is required by law.
“I know life is better outside the prison. Children can go and play whenever they want, but we cannot,” he said.
Dong doesn’t know that he will soon be forced to leave his mother, who is serving a 30-year sentence for drug trafficking.
The Prison Law, which passed the National Assembly earlier this month, lowers the age limit for children to remain with their mothers in prison from five to three years old, according to Article 41.
It still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the King.
Previously, prison officials had been flexible, allowing children to remain with their mothers an extra year or two, in some cases, especially if the child had no relatives.
Under the new law, children who have no relatives will be sent to an orphanage.
Prey Sar Prison CC2 director Khot Dara said 11 of the 484 female inmates had children with them.
NGOs provide schooling and food for the children inside the facility but must return the children to the cells by 4pm.
They were kept within the prison’s medical centre because it had more space, Khot Dara said.
Liv Mauv, deputy general of the department of prisons at the Interior Ministry, said it was critical for these children to learn about life outside.
“Children who live a long time with their mothers don’t learn about anything outside the prison,” he said.
A 2008 report by rights group Licadho said more than 110 children had entered the prison system with their mothers since 2002, mainly into CC2.
Others living in provincial prisons were kept in cells next to male prisoners, some of whom had been convicted of sex crimes, the report said.
Cheav Longdy, 20, was sentenced to three years in prison for attempted murder.
She has served about two years. Her son, now 18 months old, was born in the prison.
“My son will not remember anything about this place because he is so young. I will never speak to him about this place,” she said.
“If I had been sentenced to more than three years, I would not have allowed my son to stay here. I would have asked an NGO to look after him,” she said.
“My son opened his eyes in prison. I feel pity for him because of that.”
As her son cried, Cheav Longdy continued talking about her life in prison, saying how she missed her family during Khmer New Year.
“When I am released, I will try to bury my past,” she said.
Sao Sina, 28, said she was keeping her infant with her because she did not trust anyone else to take care of him.
“When my son grows up and is old enough to leave the prison, I will not let him leave.
“I have to ask the prison office to help me so he can live with me. If he is only three years old, how can he live apart from me?”
Tree Rat Chonthong, 33, said she would allow her two-year-old son to live with his grandparents when he turned three because she did not want him to remember the prison.
“If I let him stay until he is five, he will remember everything when he grows up.
“Here with me, he lives with my guilt. He cannot do the things children who live outside do.
“When he goes to school, I see his face light up, but when he returns to the cell with me he looks sad and bored.”