Youngsters Behind Bars Mark International Children’s Day

Among a sea of blue uniforms, a small number of residents at Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 2 (CC2) stand out. While they are dressed differently, it is not just their attire that sets them apart. These “inmates” have committed no crimes and have no sentences to appeal.

Some are still breastfeeding, others tentatively crawling. All are quiet, wide-eyed and cling close to their mothers—most of whom are here serving time for petty crimes or drug offenses in a system that is already underfunded, overcrowded and overstretched. Many of the children have never known a life beyond the prison’s walls, which are embedded with broken glass at the top.

Prisons often lack the vital and most basic components to fulfill a child’s needs, such as medical care, nourishment and education.

On International Children’s Day, which falls Saturday, the most up-to-date statistics on Cambodia show that there are 58 children incarcerated with a parent in 14 prisons around the country.

There are 400 children of prison officials and staff, meaning they, too, often spend time inside and around the prison walls where their parents work. There are also 446 juvenile prisoners under the age of 18 and 15 pregnant women incarcerated in the country’s 14 prisons.

Of all of these jails, CC2 in Phnom Penh houses the most—20 prisoners’ children, 73 prison officials’ children, 165 juveniles and seven pregnant women. On Friday, to mark International Children’s Day, staff from local rights group Licadho went to distribute gifts, play games and offer a brief respite from the drudge of prison life at all 14 jails.

Licadho director Naly Pilorge said that her organization does not take a position on whether or not children should or should not be with their mothers in prison.

“[I]t is complicated,” she said. “On one hand, children should never, ever grow up in prison. But is it more harmful to remove a child from its mother? We try to ensure that if the children have to be placed elsewhere, that they can visit their mothers who can keep connecting with the children, and if they remain in prison, there’s some education and protection and so on.”

Law prohibits inmates from keeping their children with them in prison beyond the age of 3. This came after a new provision to the Prison Law was introduced in 2011, bringing the age down from 6 years.

“I think by reducing from 6 years to 3 years old, it is good for the kids,” said Minh Samroeun, CC2’s deputy education chief. “The children have not done anything wrong. Why would they stay here? The sooner they get out, the better for their development. If their family members want to take them out before they reach 3, we would also allow them to.”

The law is not strictly enforced, however—one prisoner at CC2 is incarcerated along with her five children, who range in age from 2 to 8. Two of the children have bone deformities.

According to Anne Scharrenbroich, an Adopt-a-Prison consultant for Licadho, the woman in question declined to have her three oldest children given to a foster family until the remainder of her sentence is completed in June. Her husband is also jailed, in CC1. Both were originally imprisoned in Pailin province in May 2011 and sentenced in January 2012 for drug trafficking.

“Some of the kids are older than 3, but they do not have any family members who want to take them out, so they stay here,” Mr. Samroeun said of woman’s children, adding that NGOs are ready to help in such circumstances.

On May 22, Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, inaugurated a new mother-and-child cellblock located near CC2’s health post, where mothers with children and pregnant women were once housed. The new block means the children are not in as close proximity to other prisoners, and also gives them a shaded area in which to play.

Hem Kosal, CC2’s deputy health care chief, said one of the children—a slight 2-year-old boy who on Friday clung to a new toy while clutching his mother’s hand—is suffering from tuberculosis, a common problem in overcrowded prisons.

“There is a 2-year-old boy who has TB and a 1-and-a-half-year-old who has cancer and is being treated at Kantha Bopha hospital,” Mr. Kosal said. “It’s normal that they have more chance of getting sick if they stay,” he added. “It’s not like living outside.”

Asked if she would prefer to keep her baby with her in prison past the age of 3 or give the child to a family member, 22-year-old inmate Keo Chakrya said: “I want them to stay with me.”

On Friday, the prisoners’ youngsters watched intently as inmates erupted in raucous laughter playing a game of musical chairs.

One face stood out in the crowd—that of a juvenile prisoner who looked no older than 12, and who would—or could—not raise a smile.

The law states that 14 is the age of criminal responsibility in Cambodia.

Mr. Samroeun provided different figures to Licadho, saying that there are 215 juvenile inmates living in a separate block in CC2, and that the three youngest are 14.

“It is good for them to stay here because if they were outside, they would be on the streets,” he said. “Here, they receive education up to high school and it is certified by the Ministry of Education. They can also take English classes and vocational training such as auto-repair class.”

Most of the juvenile prisoners are also at CC2 because of theft or drug-related crimes.

Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, said young offenders would benefit from a dedicated juvenile justice system.

“We are still waiting for that law to be adopted,” he said.

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