The fast-growing population of inmates in Cambodia is quickly exceeding the rate at which new prison space is created, meaning the country’s prison system could become the world’s most overcrowded by 2018, local human rights organization Licadho said in a report to be released today.
According to the report, there were 64.6 inmates per 100,000 citizens in 2006. Today, that number has risen nearly 40 percent to 89.4.
In the 18 prisons monitored by Licadho, holding approximately 90 percent of Cambodia’s total prison population, there were a total of 12,646 inmates as of June, or 175 percent of total prison capacity.
As of December, a third of all those inmates were held without trial under court-ordered provisional detention orders.
“Some of these prisons date back to the early 1900s and are scarcely fit for habitation. Cambodia’s prisons are already starved for resources; overcrowding only makes the situation worse,” the report said.
As “a continuation of the 14 percent average growth rate of the past five years, plus the addition of 400 beds per year on average, Cambodia could have the most overcrowded prison system in the world by 2018,” the report said.
According to the report, some prisons in Cambodia are filled to more than three times their capacity.
With a capacity of 314, Takhmau prison in Kandal province actually holds 1,042.
Correctional Center 2, which detains women and children at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison, holds 777 inmates but is meant only to contain 300 and Kompong Thom Provincial Prison holds 208 inmates in a space only fit for 50.
Licadho said that while the government should address the “ills of overcrowding and outdated infrastructure,” tackling the issue by merely constructing new prisons is “a strategy destined to fail.”
“History has shown time and again that prison systems cannot simply build their way out of an overcrowding crisis,” the report said.
Siem Reap Provincial Prison finished in 2009, which is designed to house 1,000 inmates, already holds more than 1,300. Likewise Banteay Meanchey provincial prison, also finished in 2009 with a capacity of 550, now holds 816 inmates.
Licadho said the main culprit for overcrowding is an over reliance on the prison system to reduce crime.
“Building more jails is not the solution,” said Chheng Sophors, a senior rights monitor for Licadho. “We need the government and the court to think more critically about the level of punishment and whether or no they can suspend the sentence.”
Other factors that contribute to overcrowding include the failure to release inmates in pre-trial detention and keeping inmates in prison beyond their sentence.
Thus, the onus is on the justice system to start employing more non-custodial sentences and pretrial measures, the report said, adding that there are currently about 3,800 inmates detained without trial in Cambodia’s prisons even though Cambodian law calls such provisional detention as an “exceptional” measure.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said the best way to tackle overcrowding in prisons was simply to reduce the level of crime in the country.
“Each individual has a responsibility not to rob, steal or kill,” he said, adding that the government has been striving to improve conditions for inmates by increasing their daily food allowance from 1,500 riel to 2,800 riel in 2009.
The Licadho report suggests that the government should allow defendants awaiting trial who have not been accused of committing a felony to be set free. It also encourages the use of more suspended sentences, rehabilitation programs and community service as ways to curb overcrowding.
Asked if the government would follow this advice, Lt Gen Sopheak said that the current law did not contain the necessary regulations to implement such measures. However, the new penal code adopted last year does include options such as community service and suspended sentences.
Kuy Bunsorn, deputy director of the general department of prisons, said creating more jobs would do a great deal to reduce the amount of crime and pointed toward constructing more prison space as a likely solution to overcrowding.
“Nowadays there is more construction to avoid overcrowding,” he said, adding that new prisons are currently being built in Kompong Thom and Prey Veng provinces.
Officials at the Ministry of Justice declined to comment.
Correctional Center 4 in Pursat province, which is currently under construction and is set to become the country’s largest house of detention, was highlighted in the report as having a number of worrying factors concerning overcrowding.
In June, prison authorities reported two escape attempts by groups of inmates. The report said the prison’s very location was drawing concerns that many inmates were without visits from friends and families.
As of June, CC4 housed 154 inmates in two wooden buildings. Eventually the prison will consist of five buildings each capable of holding 500 prisoners.
The report said that sources from within the government have indicated that they are considering developing a “large scale rubber plantation” at CC4 prison using international business partnerships, though Lt Gen Sopheak denied this.
Both international and Cambodian labor laws prohibit the use of prison labor for the end of privatized profits.
“Licadho urges the government to ensure that prison labor is not exploited for private benefit,” the report said. “The [general department of prisons] must guarantee that all vocational training at CC4 is performed under public supervision.”