Rights Groups Decry Culture of Prison Bribery

In early June, 34-year-old Sithan’s hus­band was arrested and imprisoned in Kampot province on charg­es of clearing state-owned forest. When Sithan, who lives in Kom­pong Speu province, traveled to the prison that month, prison guards de­­manded a $15 bribe to allow her in­­side to visit.

On her second visit that month, Si­­than, who fears retaliation and ask­­ed that only her first name be used, said the guards demanded $40.

Her funds exhausted, Sithan wait­ed a month to visit again.

When she did, the guards wanted $15, though Sithan only had $8. Barred entry, Sithan sat outside the prison for a day begging the guards to take her money.

“I begged them to accept the $8 but they rejected it and would not al­low me see my husband,” Sithan re­counted this week.

Sithan’s story of extortion at the hands of Kampot’s prison officials is not unique, rights workers said on Wed­­nesday.

Samon, 42, said she pays $5 every time she visits her jailed 22-year-old son at Kampot prison.

“The first time I visited the prison I paid $10 to the prison guards and the next of my recent visits I paid $5,” she said.

And the problem is not confined to Kampot.

Bat­tambang Provincial Prison Di­rec­tor Kang Saren confirmed that rel­­­atives of inmates must pay an un­o­f­­ficial fee of $2.50 for each visit, though the bribe is not levied against poor families, he maintain­ed.

“The money we earn from the prisoners’ families is used for gasoline payments or for motorcycle tax­i fees…when guarding [inmates] at hospitals,” Kang Saren said.

He admitted that neither the In­ter­ior Ministry nor the ministry’s pri­sons department authorizes cash charges.

Pen Bonnar, coordinator for local rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri prov­ince, said bribes are demanded by prison guards throughout the in­carceration process.

“The families of prisoners are or­dered to pay a lot of money from the first day of detention until the last day of detention is over,” he said.

Ngin Nel, director of Ratanakkiri pro­vincial prison, declined comment on the allegations of corruption by his staff.

Try Chhoun, Adhoc coordinator for Kampot province, said that Kam­pot’s prison chief Poch Bunnarith al­so denies the existence of visiting-time corruption but has not properly as­sessed the evidence of wrongdoing by his staff.

Contacted this week, Poch Bun­na­rith’s response was brief: “It’s not true. It is only an excuse,” he said, then hung up his phone.

Kampot Provincial Deputy Go­v­ern­or Chuong Sivuth said the bribes to prison guards are a “hu­man­itarian” gesture on behalf of the families of prisoners.

“Actually, the families of prisoners and prison guards have a mutual un­­derstanding with each other,” Chuong Sivuth said.

As the poor wife of a jailed man, Si­than said the system that Chuong Si­vuth defended was simple brib­ery.

“If our money is not enough to meet what they demand, we cannot get in to visit prisoners. I have no idea what the policy of the prisons is, but they should not extort a lot of mon­ey,” she said.

And Sithan suspects that her complaints to human rights organizations were the reason guards al­most tripled her $15 fee to $40 to vi­sit her husband.

“One prison guard told me that be­­cause I reported to NGOs, they stop­ped allowing me to visit my husband,” she said.

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