The rising number of prisoners and inadequate, outdated prison facilities have contributed to the continuing deterioration of prison living conditions, a recently released report by the human rights NGO Licadho states.
Overcrowding is not a new problem in Cambodian prisons, but despite the building of new prisons in recent years, Licadho reported that the situation remains serious. The prison population increased by 10 percent in 2001, the report states.
The crowded conditions are jeopardizing the health and security of prisoners, the report states.
Prisons in Sihanoukville and in Banteay Meanchey and Kompong Thom provinces are cited in the report as having the gravest cases of overcrowding.
With about 120 prisoners for most of 2001, the Kompong Thom provincial prison was at triple its capacity, the report states.
Inmates there typically have an average of less than one square meter of space to call home, and prisoners often tie belongings to the ceiling so as not to take up precious floor space, the report states. Because of the space shortage, the warden has allowed some prisoners to sleep on walkways or in outside courtyards.
According to Licadho, some facilities deny prisoners their state-guaranteed outdoor time. Prison officials have said there are not enough guards to monitor prisoners outside their cells.
“Right now there are more prisoners because the police are very active in enforcing the law and are very strict and disciplined. They are taking their principles seriously,” said Samkul Sakhorn, the director of prisons for the Ministry of Interior.
The Licadho report blames excessive pre-trial detention for contributing to the problem. Licadho found that, over the past year, an average of 270 inmates were being held unlawfully at Banteay Meanchey and Phnom Penh’s CC1 and CC2 facilities.
Cambodia’s penal code prohibits detainees from being held longer than six months without trial.
But very often, prison staff are unable to transport suspects to scheduled court appearances because of what they say is a lack of resources.
Samkul Sakhorn said Thursday he hopes the government will agree to his proposal to build two new prisons. He said the deterioration of current facilities is a great concern for his department.
“Almost all of the buildings are too old. Some need repairs, and most need to be rebuilt,” he said. “We are worried, when there are storms, that the buildings might collapse. The cement is crumbling, and we sometimes have to support it with wooden beams. If a building falls, it could take lives or allow prisoners to escape.”
Licadho also reported that prison torture appears to have dropped by a small percentage. Of the 2,324 inmates interviewed by the NGO in 20 of the country’s 25 prisons, 28 inmates said they had been beaten in prison or improperly confined, and 271 said they had been mistreated in police custody before incarceration.
The report warns that these statistics could be inaccurate. Prison guards were present for all interviews, so prisoners may have felt that they could not speak freely. Officials also denied Licadho researchers access to some facilities and allowed them to visit others only at certain times.
The report said regular visits to prisons by Licadho and other human rights officials may have contributed to the reduction in torture.
Licadho Deputy Director Naly Pilorge said the Ministry of Interior plans to consult with the organization on short- and long-term strategies for improving prison accommodations.