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.