A group of Cambodian prisons across the country have taken a step away from being merely institutions of restraint, and moved towards becoming centres of rehabilitation, say prison officials, foreign government representatives and rights group workers.
Seven prisons on Thursday inaugurated new libraries stocked with everything from periodicals to printers built with funding from the European Union.
At a ceremony at Kandal Provincial Prison, one of the seven prisons to receive libraries, prison chief Chat Sineang trumpeted the new facilities to some 150 participants – including 87 prisoners – noting that just over $16,000 was spent on construction, furniture, a computer, a printer and more than 2,500 books.
“The library is very important for the prisoners’ education and their physical and mental health,” he said.
Jean Francois Cautain, head of the EU delegation in Cambodia, said the initiative is one of many plans that the EU has been working on in Cambodia, but noted this one as particularly “special”.
“The project includes 26 prisons. It is a special project, especially for prisoners, to help them with education while in prison. It also fits with government policy. Only education can help your life get better,” he said.
Despite being funded by the European Union to the sum of half a million dollars, the program was implemented by education and literacy NGO Sipar.
The two organisations are also working with the General Department of Prisons to further help convicts integrate back into society.
Lieutenant Kuy Bunsorn, general director at the prison, said to the attendees that the libraries play a crucial role in enhancing education, rehabilitation and offering career opportunities after life behind bars.
“It is an appropriate donation because it gives knowledge to our prisoners,” he said, before addressing the inmates in attendance. “You all must take this opportunity to grab knowledge so that you can use it to improve your life after you complete your prison terms. Please do not commit a crime again.”
“When you read, you get new ideas that are fruitful for your life,” he added. “If you have good ideas, you have everything you wish.”
The scheme broke ground in earnest in 2012, after a test run in Prey Sar prison, and now more than 8,000 books have been distributed to prisons in Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Battambang, Koh Kong, Kandal, Siem Reap and Prey Veng provinces.
So far, a total of 12 libraries have been built, and ten more are set to be completed by 2014, said Song Sen, SIPAR’s public relations officer.
According to Sen, many doing time are already reaping the rewards of having access to literature.
Dressed in his prison blues, Phal, 33, was one of a dozen prisoners reading at the library in Kandal. Phal was sentenced to six years for robbery in 2008 and will be freed next year.
“Before, I spent a lot of time in my cell and I was stressed and bored,” he said. “But now it is great to have a library here. I have learned to read and know more about the outside environment.”
Phal said that he spends at least three hours reading every day, studying farming and even making time for Cambodian novels.
Sharon Critoph – the prisons consultant for the rights group Licadho who attended Thursday’s inauguration, but was not involved in the project – expressed guarded optimism about the installation of the libraries.
“These educational opportunities in prisons are obviously welcome,” she said via email. “We would hope that the facilities and materials are available to all – not just the select few.”
“We would also encourage all prison library projects to stock information on prisoners' rights and responsibilities,” she added.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE