About a dozen young children sat with their mothers in the courtyard of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Correctional Center 2 on Monday morning, some mesmerized as food, toys and other supplies were distributed to celebrate International Children’s Day.
A few of them broke away from their mothers, who sat in line next to the group of around 400 juvenile inmates, to walk over to study the strange visitors distributing supplies more closely. The children know all about life behind bars, but visitors from outside CC2 are completely unknown to them, as they have spent most of their young lives in prison with their jailed mothers.
“[That] they bring you here is your mistake, but for humanitarian reasons we do not discriminate against you,” Tham Keng, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s prisons department, told the prisoners and children at the Children’s Day distribution on Monday.
“Even animals can be trained and can communicate with each other. As we are human beings like you, we hope we are able to educate you,” he added.
Local rights group Licadho, which organized the distribution, said that in the 14 prisons it monitors throughout Cambodia there are 49 children living with their incarcerated mothers, as well as nine pregnant inmates and 754 prisoners under the age of 18.
“These children are in a similar situation as the prisoners,” said Ham Sunrith, Licadho deputy director of monitoring and protection, at CC2 prison Monday.
According to Mary Laurence-Combertie, president of French NGO World Association of Children’s Friends, malnutrition is the biggest concern for children in prison with their mothers.
“The supplied food is only for the women, and the mother has to share it with the child,” she said, adding that the children “have and know absolutely nothing,” as they receive no education.
Heng Hak, director-general of the Interior Ministry’s prisons department, said the children face some problems, such as a lack of opportunities to learn, but he added that they received enough food to eat. “Even though we don’t have a special food package to support them, they have the same food supply as prisoners,” Mr Hak said.
“Those children are unfortunate to live with mothers who have problems, but we try to work with some NGOs to raise those children,” he added.
Mrs Laurence-Combertie said her organization AMADE would open a daycare center for children and women next week that would provide three meals per day for the children living in CC2, monitor the child and maternal health, and offer formal education for female inmates.