Cambodia’s prison system remains massively overcrowded with the inmate population exceeding capacity by 70 percent, according to the Ministry of Interior, a situation that rights monitors say is forcing prisoners to live in dire conditions and participate in rampant corruption.
In its annual prisons report received Friday, the Ministry of Interior said that 15,397 prisoners, including 1,261 women, were living in the country’s 27 prisons as of November 15, a decrease of just 7 people compared to the same period last year. Cambodia’s prisons have the capacity to hold about 9,000 inmates.
Although the report from the General Department of Prisons (GDP) noted improved safety and security in the country’s prisons, it concluded that efforts to tackle overcrowding have been insufficient.
“The GDP is…facing some challenges, especially the overcrowding in prisons, which we need to improve for better living conditions,” the report states, adding that the government has failed to implement laws that could help alleviate the country’s congested prisons.
“Implementing the prison law, particularly sentence reduction and amnesty procedures, have yet to be implemented smoothly,” the report says.
Last year, 126 prisoners received a royal pardon, while another 553 had their sentences reduced by between 6 and 12 months, according to the report. Another 412 prisoners were pardoned during the funeral of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Prisoners in the country also included 665 foreigners, 462 minors, 13 pregnant women and 81 children accompanied by mothers, according to the report.
Despite recognizing the problem of overcrowding, the government has failed to take a number of actions that could ease the problem, and has allowed a culture of corruption and human rights abuses to thrive, according to Jeff Vize, an advocacy consultant to local rights group Licadho.
“The thing with overcrowding here is you have an underfunded prison system with limited resources and the more people there are, the smaller their slice of pie. You get people paying for things like more space and more food because rations aren’t adequate,” Mr. Vize said.
“Virtually everything has a price tag. If you want to move to a less crowded cell, purchase additional food rations, water or medical care, you have to pay for it,” he said.
The country’s prison system also come under scrutiny in the U.S. State Department’s 2012 country report on human rights, which was released earlier this month.
The report states that conditions in Cambodia’s prisons “remained harsh and sometimes life threatening.”
“Human rights organizations cited serious problems, including overcrowding, medical and sanitation problems, food and water shortages, malnutrition and poor security,” the report states.
The report also says that prisoners and their families were forced to pay bribes to prison officials for everything from basic provisions and better prison cells to permission to attend appeal hearings and even to be released from prison.
“There were credible reports that officials occasionally demanded bribes before allowing prisoners to attend trials or appeal hearings and before releasing inmates who had served their full term of imprisonment,” the report says.
The Interior Ministry’s prison report says that 16 inmates escaped last year, while 46 inmates died in prison. The U.S. State Department’s report says that authorities in each of those cases claimed that they had found pre-existing conditions or other illnesses that caused the deaths.
Kuy Bunsorn, general director of the GDP, declined to respond Sunday to questions about the Interior Ministry’s report.
Hin Sophal, director of the Banteay Meanchey provincial prison, said that his prison was slightly over capacity with 850 inmates currently occupying a space for 800. But, he said it was not a problem for the prisoners and denied that there was any corruption.
“There was overcrowding in 2012. But right now it is better because we transferred them to prisons in Battambang and Kompong Thom provinces,” he said.
Still, overcrowding at other prisons, especially those close to Phnom Penh, remains almost unchanged, according to Kim Huot, the acting director of Prison Fellowship Cambodia, an organization that promotes education and skills training programs for prisoners.
As of May, the CC2 ward in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, which was built for 300 prisoners, housed 733 prisoners, while Takhmao prison held 926 prisoners, almost triple its capacity of 314, according to a report published in July by Licadho.
“Some prisoners have to live in a cell where one room has 20 to 25 people,” Mr. Huot said, adding that he does not blame a lack of compassion, but rather poor funding, for the country’s overburdened prison system.
According to Mr. Vize at Licadho, there are a number of things that the Interior Ministry and judiciary could do to rein in the country’s prison population. Along with sentence reduction and amnesty, the government also needs to consider alternative punishments for convicted criminals, he said.
“If they cut down on prosecutions and lengthy sentences and used other types of sentencing and treatment options that could have an impact,” he said, explaining that community service for nonviolent offenders or treatment programs for drug users could keep many out of the prison system.
Mr. Vize also advised the government to reduce the number of prisoners staying for long periods of time in pretrial detention. About 23 percent of prisoners are serving pretrial detention, according to the Interior Ministry report.
Although the government says it is focusing more on the rehabilitation of prisoners by opening libraries and vocational training centers, Mr. Vize said that overcrowding severely reduces the likelihood that prisoners will come out of the country’s prison system in better shape than they went in.
“They are warehousing people right now. The worse conditions are, the less likely you will be to come out better,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)