Doung Sovanary pulls a small ring of keys from his belt and opens the rusty barred doors of Kompong Thom provincial prison, known by police and NGO workers as one of the filthiest and most crowded prisons in the country.
From the darkness of the prison’s only cell, nearly 80 men peer at Doung Sovanary in silence. The 7-meter-by-15-meter cell, roughly the size of a tennis court, was built to hold a maximum of 45 inmates. But at night, it houses nearly triple that number.
The air inside is thick and damp. And from the cobwebbed ceiling, bundles of the prisoners’ meager belongings—kramas, cigarettes and plastic water bottles—hang on chains to create more sleeping room.
Doung Sovanary, who has been a guard here for about eight years, points to the bare arms and torsos of the inmates. They are scarred and encrusted with pus from scabies and other infections.
“All of them have skin disease,” the prison’s medical officer, Chhea Veasna, said, adding that most prisoners also suffer from diarrhea and malnutrition. Some are also afflicted with malaria.
The heat and dampness, combined with the close confinement of the living quarters and lack of hygiene, provide a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and disease, he said.
The toilet, in the corner of the cell next to the sleeping area, is a series of plastic cans and buckets. There is no running water.
If one person falls ill, the rest do too, Chhea Veasna said. And with a small medical kit, containing only multivitamins, paracetemol, amoxicillin and penicillin, he said he is ill-equipped to treat them.
Aside from being known for providing some of the worst living conditions for inmates in the country, Kompong Thom provincial prison is also one of Cambodia’s oldest prisons.
The building was constructed in 1905, during French colonial rule, according to the prison’s chief, Chea Yean. It was later turned into an ammunition storage place in the Lon Nol regime, and was used again as a prison during the Pol Pot era, he said.
Over the past century, due to time and lack of upkeep, the roof has caved in and the cement walls of the prison’s original 11 cells have long since crumbled. Now, only the outer wall and a back room, which houses the prison’s 10 female inmates, remain of the original structure.
The single cell for male prisoners was rebuilt in 1996 with the help of human rights NGO Licadho and funding from the Australian government, police and Licadho officials said.
But, with 119 inmates, there is a dire shortage of living space, Chea Yean said, adding that the tension of being cramped in such small quarters sometimes spurs violent outbursts from the inmates. He said they occasionally beat themselves against the cell walls.
“When they stay too long in the cell, they become stressed,” Chea Yean said. “It is too hot and small. It is not at international standards.”
Overcrowding is a serious problem for several of Cambodia’s prisons, affecting prisons in Sihanoukville and Banteay Meanchey province as well as Kompong Thom, according to a 2001 Licadho report. The problem, the report said, poses a risk to prisoners’ health and security.
Government officials estimate about 6,100 people are imprisoned in the 25 prisons nationwide.
Due to overcrowding and lack of maintenance, Kompong Thom provincial prison has experienced seven attempted escapes in the last nine months, provincial Police Chief Hang Sithim said. He said that on a few of those occasions, prisoners were able to simply knock down portions of the crumbling walls and run out of the compound. None of them, however, escaped successfully, he said.
A Licadho official in Kompong Thom town said nine prisoners, allegedly responsible for an attempted escape in July, were shackled together for a week as punishment. It was a move, the official said, that could be construed as torture.
The use of shackles “is a violation of prison rules,” the official said. “But when we investigated, we found they have no choice and cannot guard the safety of the prison. If we allow [the prisoners] to stay freely in the cell, it is very hard for the prison guards.”
Most of the prisoners in Kompong Thom provincial prison have been accused of crimes ranging from petty theft to kidnapping and armed robbery. The average sentence is less than 5 years. Offenders of more serious crimes are sent to prisons in other provinces.
But prison chief Chea Yean said that nearly half of the inmates here have yet to be sentenced in the courts.
Under Cambodian law, suspects must be brought to trial within six months of being detained.
Chea Yean said the longest anyone has been at the prison without being sentenced is about four months. While he said excessive pre-trial detention has not been a problem in his prison, Licadho reports show that in the month of June, 168 inmates from 17 prisons across the country were being detained excessively awaiting trial.
At Kompong Thom provincial prison, the more serious offenders are kept within the outer wall of the former prison building, while minor offenders are allowed to wander in the surrounding barb-wired compound, Chea Yean said.
Pek Chrein, for instance, is given slightly more freedom than some of the other inmates. The 39-year-old, thin and disheveled in his two-piece blue-and-white prison uniform, is allowed to toil in the prison yard from time to time. His right eye blazes with the redness of infection.
Since his crime was minor—he is serving a nine-month sentence for stealing a duck—he can occupy his remaining days in prison chopping firewood or building wooden beds and tables outdoors inside the compound.
His wife lives close by and visits him during the allotted visiting times on Thursdays and Fridays, he said, and often brings him food to supplement his prison rations.
Chea Yean said families and visitors are encouraged to bring food for the inmates because the prison food supply is so limited. The Ministry of Interior provides about $0.25 per prisoner each day for their twice-daily meals, which is enough for only some rice and cheap vegetables, the prison chief said.
“People complain they are hungry to us, they are starving,” said a Licadho official in Phnom Penh. “Across the country, this is a problem.”
According to one inmate here: “The rice is not real rice. It is mixed with stones…. It is not so nice.”
Next to the prison’s sheltered outdoor wood stove, where the food is being prepared, Pay Youn, 34, sits idly. The former farmer said he is serving a six-month sentence for practicing medicine without proper credentials. He has received medical training, he said, but is not a doctor. Yet when his neighbor asked him to give an injection of penicillin to a sick patient, Pay Youn said he complied. The patient, a 63-year-old woman, later died and Pay Youn was sent to prison.
He said he has completed about half his sentence. When he is freed, he said, he will be unemployed.
Chea Yean said there are no adequate facilities in the prison for gardening or exercising, let alone work training. And adding to the shortage of space, part of the grounds was flooded with sewage after the underground sewage system backed up. Chea Yean said the prison officials now manually transport human excrement from the prison to empty in nearby rice fields.
From 7:30 am, when the inmates are awakened, to their 6 pm bedtime, there is little for them to do, Chea Yean said.
Conditions for the prison’s 45 guards, six of whom are female, are not much better, he said.
The guards said that the Ministry of Interior pays them about $15 per month and supplies their food. Their meals, they said, are similar to what the prisoners eat.
Although some of the guards live nearby, Chea Yean said, others stay at the prison, sleeping under the leaky shelter of the prison’s foyer or setting up camp outdoors. Some stay in the “interrogation room”—an open area covered by tarpaulin—along with the overflow of prisoners who cannot fit inside the cell.
Chea Yean said Ministry of Interior officials have promised to relocate Kompong Thom provincial prison to a new facility on the outskirts of town. But, he said, as of yet, there has been no move to build such a facility.
Samkol Sokhan, chief of the Ministry of Interior’s prison department, said the ministry intended to build new prisons in Kompong Thom and Takeo province, where the prison also faces collapse. But, he said, those plans were thwarted due to a lack of funds.
He said the ministry estimated that it would cost about $800,000 to build a new 200-person capacity prison that meets international standards.
“We have a project but we have no money to do it,” Samkol Sokhan said, adding that the ministry also lacked money to repair the existing prisons.
He declined to disclose the ministry’s prison budget.
Back at Kompong Thom provincial prison, Chea Yean runs his right hand along the outer wall.
“See this?” the prison chief said, shaking his head. “We need to knock it down and rebuild it.”
The cement crumbles at his touch.