P RISONERS in Cambodia's archaic provincial jails are slowly starving while administrators
try to locate funds the Interior Ministry should have provided to buy them food.
Senior Interior Ministry officials have confirmed money for prisoners' food seems
to have "disappeared" and that provincial jails had received only one monthly
payment since August.
Sim Samon, the director of Kompong Speu prison, said inmates were now on a diet of
just 50 grams of rice each day. The World Food Program calculates a healthy adult
needs a minimum of 440 grams to maintain good health.
"Please help us," Samon said. "The prisoners do not have enough food
and they lack vitamins so it is easy for disease to spread."
The World Food Program has confirmed it will provide emergency aid for Kompong Speu
prison, but the human rights group Licadho said the problem was both persistent and
A spokesperson for Licadho, which runs a prisoner health project in several provincial
and Phnom Penh prisons, said most Cambodian prisoners lived on the "edge of
Tuberculosis, fever, skin and intestinal diseases are common, exacerbated by cramped
conditions and poor diet.
In Kompong Speu prison at least 10 inmates are suffering from beri beri, a debilitating
condition caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The situation in others, and in particular
Kompong Som jail, is reported to be even worse.
Earlier this month an NGO sponsored doctor visited Kompong Som and discovered a scene
that might well have been Dante's Inferno.
According to the doctor's report, one prisoner was suffering from untreated bullet
wounds to the hand and ear suffered three weeks earlier. The hand was so badly smashed
and infected, the doctor concluded, it's likely to require amputation.
On Nov 4, three prisoners suffering severe beri beri were transferred from the Kompong
Som jail to the provincial hospital.
According to a medical report on the men, one was so ill from malnutrition that he
was "a week away from death." The two others were so weak they were unable
to walk unassisted.
But investigations revealed the three were shackled to beds and were refused treatment
and food, as hospital officials claimed they had few supplies and that the care of
prisoners was the responsibility of the prison authorities.
The prison director, according to an NGO sources, then moved them back to jail as
he considered they would die if left at the hospital. Emergency medical help improved
their condition, but one source said their health will deteriorate unless their diet
Of 45 prisoners examined at Kompong Som, 32 required medical treatment and 16 were
suffering from beri beri.
A similar situation exists at other prisons, even those which benefit from fortnightly
visits of Licadho's Prison Health Program.
"Recent flooding prevented us from visiting Prey Veng hospital - in the four
weeks between visits eight prisoners developed beri beri," a Licadho investigator
Several international organizations said the problem in Cambodia's prisons presented
them with a dilemma.
"Sure people need help," said a representative of one. "But if we
take over responsibility for prisoners, the Cambodian government never will."
Meanwhile confusion within the Interior Ministry as to where money for prisoner's
food is or has gone appears unlikely to be resolved in the near future.
Payments for August were made to provincial prison directors in early October, but
at press time payments for September, October and November were still outstanding.
Similarly, a special one-off payment of 3000 riels for each prisoner made each April
on occasion of Khmer New Year is still outstanding.
"If the Ministry does not give money prison directors must borrow the money
from businessmen and then they must pay very high interest on the loans," said
one senior Interior Ministry source who requested anonymity.
"This is nothing new. I've tried very hard to get answers about where the money
is, but I don't get an answer. Perhaps it has gone into some person's pocket.
"I am very frustrated and angry - the Interior Ministry gets a lot of money
from the Finance Ministry, but it is not passed on to us," he said gesturing
towards the construction of a large building within the Ministry compound.
"This is a very serious crisis - the department of prisons is being cheated
of its money - it happens all the time."