In a bid to alert prison and social affairs officials to the impact of child imprisonment, local rights group Licadho has released an in-depth case study on one such youngster to highlight the sometimes devastating and long-lasting effects on children incarcerated with a parent.
Childhood Behind Bars: Growing Up in a Cambodian Prison, describes the developmental impact that six years and 10 months behind bars had on a boy referred to by the alias Sokun, whose development was assessed by experts from Indigo Psychological Services in Cambodia.
Sokun was still in utero when his 28-year-old mother was arrested in January 2005 on a human trafficking charge and sentenced to 15 years in prison. By the time he left prison, the years spent in a claustrophobic and dangerous environment had taken its toll on the boy, Licadho said.
“During the Indigo assessment, Sokun did not talk much about his past. When he did, he would refer to prison as ‘the cage,’” the report says.
“Being locked away for many hours of his life in a small, overcrowded cell appears to have had a huge impact on Sokun’s life and this still dominates his fears today.”
One of the most traumatizing incidents involved Sokun watching as his mother cut down the body of a fellow inmate who had hung herself.
Since January 2012, Sokun has been in the care of German NGO Chibodia, which runs a care home and sends him to school. He has exhibited aggressive and sexualized behavior and tries to steal food and money, despite being aware that it is unacceptable. Still, the report notes that Sokun “has made great social and educational progress” and also is caring toward other people.
Licadho monitors 15 of the 23 prisons in the country that accommodate women with their children and “as of September 2013, only four Cambodian prisons provided children with basic, on-site educational and recreational opportunities; all of these programs are run by NGOs.”
Regarding Sokun’s case, there are few happy memories of his years in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 2 (CC2), which is the section of Prey Sar prison in which women and juvenile offenders are incarcerated. According to Licadho, it is one of the country’s most overcrowded prisons, operating at 217 percent of its original capacity.
“A key principle guiding the management of children in prison with their mothers is that these children should never be treated as prisoners,” the report says. “A second key principle is that the child’s environment should be as close as possible to that of a child outside prison.”
According to CC2’s deputy director, Teng Bunthy, the 13 children currently incarcerated with their mothers at the prison are assisted by NGOs that educate them and monitor their health.
“We take them to school during the daytime and return them at noon,” he said of the prison children. “It is difficult for us to break them up from their mothers, because the mothers do not want them out and demand that they stay with them in the cell.”
The report says that decisions for children to stay in prison with their mothers should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
It urged the prisons’ department and Social Affairs Ministry to issue specific guidelines related to the treatment of children and also considers supervised pretrial release or non-custodial sentences of women who are pregnant or have children.