On a hot, humid Saturday morning, a few families huddled in the golden mud outside Prey Sar prison, the lucky ones with small plastic chairs to sit in. Few had thought that far ahead, though, and squatted in the heat and filth, some of their children splashing in the puddles, others minding their mothers and keeping close to their heels.
Uniformed guards carrying clipboards popped outside the heavy doors every few minutes, and the families stopped chattering. The guards barked out a name of a prisoner, and his family scrambled at once, gathering the foods, medicines, and gifts they had brought for their monthly visits. They, too, shortly disappeared behind the steel doors, which clanged behind them.
What happens behind those doors is a matter of public debate.
While some observers say that the country has made great strides in improving conditions, many critics counter that things are not moving fast enough, if at all.
Prison reform was a centerpiece concern during the February visit of UN human rights chief Peter Leuprecht, who made prison overcrowding, lengthy detentions, and restricted access to legal representation a major part of his human rights report on Cambodia.
“I think everybody admits they’re bad,” Leuprecht said.
In two recent visits to provincial prisons, little had changed for the better, said Yi Kosalvathanak, monitoring officer of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC).
Prisoners were stuffed into jails with little supervision. They were malnourished and vulnerable to disease, with few or no options for treatment. They were beaten by their jailers or by prisoners acting under guards’ orders. The money their families sent them was confiscated.
“I went to two provinces, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey. Nothing has changed. The problem in Battambang is the police don’t want to be civil servants,” he said.
The prisons are overcrowded, Yi Kosalvathanak said, with up to 50 prisoners crammed into a four meter by six meter room.
“It was like a bread box,” he said.
“In general, the realities [of reform] have not taken shape yet. I don’t see anything changing,” he added.
The only time things get better is when monitors visit the prisons, Yi Kosalvathanak said.
“Some prisoners told me that unless human rights workers are there, they are not given exercise,” he said.
And that may be just a small part of the picture, presented by the prisoners who are not afraid to talk, Yi Kosalvathanak said. Prison authorities have refused to let rights workers speak privately with prisoners, he said. They insist on posting guards during interviews because they are afraid that “the prisoners will say bad things about them,” he said.
Even worse, there is little regard for the prisoners’ legal rights, and some suspects are jailed for months at a time without charge, Yi Kosalvathanak said.
“You can’t say, ‘Guys, the court is busy, we’ll see you in six months,’” he said.
Confessions under coercion still occur, human rights workers say. Torture only makes prisoners angry, warns Thun Saray, president of ADHOC. The anger confirms a mistrust in the law and does not deter criminal actions, Thun Saray said.
“If you fight them, they will fight you back,” he said. “Education and skills training are the only ways to reduce crime.”
Outside Prey Sar, Lok Navy, 29, said she could attest to the long delays in the system. She had been trying to get bond for her husband, Chhan Savoeun, 32, for months. Her husband, jailed since June on charges that he kidnapped his boss, is HIV-positive and is not doing well inside, she said.
She sat on a red plastic stool as her children, Chhan Sophany, 11 and Chhan Sophana, 10, squatted in the dirt.
“He told me he had diarrhea and rashes. He cannot eat. The medical staff told me he has swollen legs. I want him to be treated outside of prison,” Lok Novy said, adding that she, too, is HIV positive.
She has appealed to human rights group Licadho for help with the case. The group has given her pills and medicine to treat her husband, which she brandished in a clear plastic baggie. Even so, she said she was worried.
“I don’t think he can live for more than two months,” she said.
As Lok Navy spoke with reporters, a prison guard dressed in pinstripe blue dress pants and a polo shirt came and said that talking with the families was disruptive, ordering reporters elsewhere.
A more friendly guard later explained through the rusted iron bars of the office that higher-ups were watching from above. They were not pleased with the note-taking, the guard said.
Sympathetic prison officials say that they are mired in government red tape and desperate financial conditions.
“We have no money to organize training for prisoners,” said Oum Mean, director general for the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor Training and Youth Rehabilitation. “I expect 80 percent of teenage prisoners would change their habits if they received skills training to get a better job in the future.”
But some government officials and international observers, while acknowledging overcrowding, say that Cambodia is heading toward reform.
In five provincial prisons, for instance, inmates are receiving vocational training in subjects such as handicrafts and the use of computer software. There is a new electronics shop in the Kampot province prison. In the new women’s prison, which opened in April, the women learn tailoring and basic phone skills. They also raise chickens and work in vegetable gardens. Their children seem well cared-for and run free throughout the complex, said one foreign-aid worker who has visited the prisons frequently in the course of implementing programs.
The legislation requiring soldiers instead of police officers to guard prisons also seems to have had a positive impact, especially in the women’s prison, where more and more guards are female, said the aid worker, who asked not to be identified.
Even the overcrowding—the population at Prey Sar has doubled in the last year—can be seen as an indication of reform, the aid worker said.
“It’s an indicator that the front of the criminal justice system is working more effectively,” the aid worker said.
Besides, some government officials say, prison should not be a paradise.
A Prey Sar prison official said inmates there are given a 30,000 riel allowance, receive free medical care, and have plenty of free time.
“They do nothing. They are fatter than you and me. They only eat and sleep,” the prison official said.
A recent visit to Prey Sar, however, demonstrated otherwise.
On a hot weekday, male prisoners had been on work detail. All wearing the prison uniform of blue and white pajamas, some had removed their shirts and were sweating in the heat.
In the row of shops across from the prison, four men were building a new shack—sawing, hammering, and planing wood. When reporters began asking them questions, the guards gathered them up and moved them inside the prison.
Outside the prison, the soldiers continued to bark out families’ names and relatives scurried in and out of the darkened doorway.
Hen Buntueoenn, whose name had not been called through the morning, walked up to the heavy doors, and after a brief discussion, was turned away.
She said she has not been able to see her brother, Chok Ry, 35, since his arrest in November. He is jailed on charges of helping the Cambodian Freedom Fighters in their failed coup attempt, and for months, officials have kept him under tight guard, Hen Buntueoenn said.
“I am not allowed in here until Sam Rainsy brings me. Maybe I will give up,” she said, wearing a blue pantsuit and a medallion with her mother’s picture in the shape of a golden heart.
It is this kind of treatment that most upsets Yi Kosalvathanak.
“I’m not demanding that prisoners fare better than any other Cambodians,” he said. “But everybody deserves basic human rights and decency.”
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)