Cambodia’s prisons are holding almost twice as many inmates as they were designed for, officials say, amid concerns from a rights group that the government is using jails as a “dumping ground” for the impoverished.
Deputy Director-General of Prisons Liv Morv said Monday that there are approximately 15,500 inmates in the country’s 28 prisons as drug-related crime fuel the rise in the prison population.
Cambodia ranks 34th on an index of the world's most crowded prison populations by country. Last year, it placed in the top 25.
According to Liv Morv, Cambodia’s prisons were designed for an inmate population of 8,500. Provincial prisons designed to hold 200 to 300 inmates regularly house 400 to 500 and in some cases hold as many as 1,000.
Many of these smaller, older jails are legacies of French colonization and do not meet modern standards.
Officials say the cramped conditions are affecting inmates’ health.
“They are living in tight spaces,” Liv Morv said. “We need to expand the buildings.”
Expanding the system
He said that building more prisons, such as one currently under construction in western Cambodia’s Pursat province, is the best way to quickly alleviate prison conditions.
“We are expanding the buildings but it does not mean that we want more inmates,” he said.
But Cambodian rights watchdog Licadho, which monitors prisons across the country, is concerned that too many people are being held in the prisons and building more facilities to house a growing number of inmates is not the right solution.
Licadho, which released its new “Beyond Capacity 2012” report on prisons this week, urged Phnom Penh to consider alternative sentencing for minor crimes, such as asking inmates to perform community work or placing drug offenders in rehabilitation centers.
Instead of making more room, Phnom Penh should stop imposing prison time for minor crimes or unpaid fines and allowing mass delays in processing final court verdicts, it said.
“I urge the government to seek different measures to avoid detention,” Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek said.
Push for reform
In one example noted by Licadho, a Cambodian woman was imprisoned for six months for stealing a basket of vegetables to feed her children.
“Imprisonment shouldn’t be the default punishment for a mother who steals food to feed her children,” Pung Chhiv Kek said.
“The prisons will remain overcrowded as long as they are used as a ‘dumping ground’ for society’s down-and-out. Cambodia needs to implement more alternatives to prison,” she said.
Prison reforms have been discussed by the government, but Licadho officials are dissatisfied with what they call a lack of progress.
“The government has finally begun talking about using community service and other non-custodial sentences,” Pung Chhiv Kek said. “But we have yet to see serious action.”
Cabinet Chief of Ministry of Justice Sam Pracheameanit said that the court is not allowed to provide non-custodial punishment for all light crime offenders.
“The court officials are working strictly to the law. In some cases that are under investigation, the court can continue to detain the suspects,” he said.
A major factor behind the recent growth in prison population has been drug-related crime, Licadho’s investigations found.
Liv Morv confirmed that high crime rates in Cambodia’s provinces are attributable in part to drug- and alcohol-related offenses.
In its report, Licadho found that drug-related criminal arrests were up 163 percent in 2011, despite a modest 2.3 percent increase in the overall population of the Cambodian prison system.
The report also found that 2,747 inmates were held on drug-related charges as of November 2011, up from 1,046 a year before.
The increase came from a yearlong crackdown that has led to a surge in drug arrests over the last year.
“At a time of record prison population growth, the authorities packed an extra 1,700 drug offenders into the system,” said Licadho Director Naly Pilorge in a press release.
“That includes nearly 250 arrested only for drug use,” she said. “There are cheaper and more effective ways of dealing with drug problems.”
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by James Bourne.