An era ended at Phnom Penh’s T3 prison Tuesday.
Handcuffed in pairs, more than 500 of the country’s most hardened inmates walked through the building’s colonial-era entrance for the last time, passing weeping relatives and irate guards, as the city’s notorious prison closed.
The controversial move to relocate the prison to a suburban location 20 km away led guards to threaten protests and forced the government to call in some 50 members of the Ministry’s of Interior’s Intervention Police force to oversee the operation.
The lucrative, centrally-located T3 land was traded to a well-connected petroleum company for a new, modern prison built on the outskirts of town.
T3 guards complained that the move will force them to give up second jobs, find new schools, and lose their homes. Last week, they threatened to burn tires and resist the move, unless they received compensation.
“The reason why they brought the 50 Intervention Police here is because they were afraid the prison staff will release the prisoners [in protest]. But we would not do that,” said a T3 prison guard Monday night.
Relatives of prisoners opposed the move as well. They stood crying at T3 on Tuesday, as inmates dressed in blue prison uniforms boarded three tour buses which brought them in three runs to the city’s new prison in Svay Prey commune in Dangkao district.
Those who live in the prison’s new location also were not happy. According to villagers in Prey Veng commune, 89 families who have lived there since 1979 own a 31 hectare plot of land in the center of which the prison is built.
Still, advocates of the move said it went off without a hitch. Sreng Sreang, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s prison department, said the move was a complete success as the last of the 559 prisoners departed at 2:30 pm from T3. “There was no problem,” he said.
Planned protests by T3 guards demanding compensation for the move didn’t materialize amid the tight security operation.
According to prison staff, the extra force was brought in late Monday night.
Staff said T3 prison director Kuy Bunsron convened a meeting of prison staff early Tuesday morning before the departure to announce that only $300 compensation per person will be paid for the move, but promised that living quarters for families of staff members will be built at the new prison.
Speaking while the prisoners departed, a number of guards said they were still unhappy with the $300 offer, noting the amount of money was too little to buy property in Cambodia.
“I don’t know about this. We asked for $3,000 and they only gave us $300. We are still facing difficulty, but we don’t know what to do…. If we protest now they will crackdown,” said one prison guard gesturing to the heavily armed Intervention police.
Officials at the Prey Sa prison said Tuesday Kuy Bunsron was too busy to meet reporters.
According to Sreng Sreang, it will be up to higher Interior Ministry officials if the $300 is paid. “I’m not sure [about the compensation]. It will be up to my boss,” said Sreng Sreang.
Mediation by Sreng Sreang last Thursday ended a protest by the prison guards who said the action would escalate if their demands were not met.
More than 30 families with young children currently live in the old T3 prison, and though conditions are bad it is better than nothing, 30-year-old Som Sophea, who has lived in T3 for six years, said Thursday. “Although it is bad, we have no choice,” he said.
Sin Dek, 53, a mother of five who is married to a guard, said she cannot afford to move from the 100-year-old building that has been her home since the early 1980s. Staff families interviewed at T3 Tuesday said they have not been told to leave yet and are unsure of their future.
“They [prison guards] have all left. I don’t know when we will leave. They haven’t told us,” Sin Dek Tuesday said.
Sokimex, one of Cambodia’s largest petroleum companies, struck a deal with the government to build the new prison in the southwest of Phnom Penh in exchange for the T3 property.
Interviewed by phone, Sokimex deputy director Sorn Sokna said Tuesday last that bulldozers will move in and demolish T3 prison as soon as prisoners and staff have been transferred.
Sokimex is assessing plans to build a private hospital on the T3 site with Thai and Japanese partners, said Sorn Sokna.
This is not the first time a deal involving Sokimex has led to angry protests from prison guards. The government struck a similar deal to trade property to Sokimex in Seam Riep town. As a result some 80 guards at Siem Reap’s provincial prison demanded compensation and protested last September when they learned of plans to move to a new Sokimex-built prison 3 km outside the town. According to Sorn Sokna, the Siem Reap prison will be operational next month.
Emotion over the move also erupted on the other side of the prison walls Tuesday as relatives of prisoners broke into tears at the thoughts of not being able to visit their loved ones as frequently in the new prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Sou Ra, 42, said she has been able to visit her 68-year-old husband every week since his incarceration 4 months ago. But that will change as she doesn’t have the money to make the 50-minute journey to Prey Sa.
“I don’t know how I will get the money to go and visit him. I’m afraid the [guards] might beat him and I won’t know,” said Sou Ra Tuesday.
But 35-year-old In Sitha said the journey to Prey Sa is far and will be dangerous in the evenings. Even so, she believes her husband will be better off at the modern prison which has replaced the French-era prison.
“I think the new prison is clean and probably the prisoners will have better conditions,” said another woman waiting to catch a glimpse of her husband as he left the jail Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang and Saing Soenthrith)