James Ricketson: Basic Changes Could Ease Suffering of Cambodia’s Prison Population

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson spent 15 months in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison on espionage charges. In the third installment of a four-part interview with The Cambodia Daily, Ricketson outlines a series of changes that could ease the suffering of Cambodian prisoners and their families.

Q: What are some of ways the government could improve prison conditions?

Well, I think the first thing is that you can’t have 140 people in a 16m by 15m cell. You can’t have 140 people crammed in a cell like sardines. I’ve actually just been to have blood taken this morning and I have to go and see the doctor. The outside of my body is covered in sores and I don’t know what they are. All the prisoners get all sorts of skin sores as a result of the overcrowding. Scabies is rampant. Everyone gets scabies every six weeks or so. So, overcrowding.

Another big issue is pre-trial detention. People that have yet to be found guilty of a crime, particularly if it’s a petty crime, should not be in pretrial detention. They should be with their families. This has an incredible impact on families, if you’ve got 6,000 men in jail who are the primary breadwinner for their families [and they are] taken out of circulation, it renders their wives children very often destitute. They’ve got no money to survive. Many of the people in pretrial detention are in for things like stealing a mobile phone or stealing a motorbike. And they spend six months before they go to court, and when they go to court they get a one or two year jail sentence. It’s counterproductive.

Another thing that I think needs to change is that there are quite a few people in jail that are suffering from mental illness. And there are no facilities in the jail to cope with mentally ill patients. In the cell next to mine when I was in the hospital they had chains, and they used chains to shackle prisoners who were misbehaving or making too much noise in the middle of the night, in a system which I think is kind of like 19th century bedlam conditions. So they need to be able to take care of mentally ill prisoners properly.

When it comes to visits, I was very moved and disturbed by the number of young fathers on one side of a Plexiglas screen unable to touch or have any physical contact with their children on the other side. So you’d have [very young] children on the other side of the Plexiglas screen trying to relate to their dad. Very, very, sad. How can a 3-year-old kid relate to her dad when she can’t even sit on his lap or hug him or kiss him or anything like that. I think that’s fundamentally wrong and fundamentally unnecessary…One of the things you realize when you’re in jail is that it isn’t just the person that’s in jail that is being punished. It’s the whole family that is being punished, and that applies to me as well. My family in many respects had a much worse experience with my incarceration than I had.

As a Westerner I was privileged to be able to spend about four hours a day out of my cell, mostly. I spent about two and a half hours of that [time] walking and about an hour and a half talking to friends and so on. Unfortunately, for a lot of the Khmer men, they are lucky if they get out of their cell once a week for 20 minutes or twice a week for 20 minutes. So they’re stuck in a very crowded cell for extraordinarily long periods of time. A very crowded and hot cell. I think it’s cruel. And I think it’s unnecessarily cruel. But that’s just the way it is. I was very lucky, as a Westerner with a little bit of money, to be able to spend more time out of the cell. And I don’t think I should have been receiving special treatment. I think that should have been extended to everybody.

Q: Now that you are free, is there any message you’d like to send to former fellow inmates?

My message to everybody in prison would be: Don’t give up. A time will come when you’re not in Prey Sar prison and it will all just be a memory. I wish you all well and I hope that when you do get to court that you achieve a just result. And if you’ve been to court and you haven’t received a just result, I hope you keep appealing and using the system to obtain justice. Because one thing that I think does happen a lot is that poor people—it’s understandable because they’re poor—they don’t know what their rights are, and, as a result of their poverty, [they] don’t have an opportunity to challenge some of the verdicts that get handed down. And if they were able to challenge those verdicts, in some instances anyway, the verdict could be overturned or the sentence imposed reduced.


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