Inside Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar Prison, inmates are subject to poor food, brutal punishment, crowded spaces and squalid conditions. They also face an institutionalized pay-to-play system where prisoners have to bribe the guards if they want to make even the most routine legal filings.
The prison, previously known as S24, is one of Cambodia’s 27 prisons, which house nearly 18,800 inmates in facilities designed for 13,000. The overcapacity issue is compounded by the low priority the country places on prisoner welfare and the propensity of authorities to toss people into jail.
The London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief reports that in 2014 Cambodia’s prison population stood at slightly more than 15,000, up from just over 5,500 in 2000.
Those who break prison rules can be shackled, beaten, or kept in their cells for weeks on end. New prisoners are often subject to initiation beatings carried out by groups of inmates under the orders of the guards, the rights group said.
Everything has a price
And inmates can add extortion by guards to the long list of indignities they suffer, a former prisoner told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Srey Chandara, 56, served 13 years and six months in Prey Sar on a robbery charge. He was recently released, and told RFA that inmates have to pay the guards if they want to make an appeal or seek an early release.
“They ask for money for doing everything,” he told RFA. “From filing a request for reducing a sentence, to filing a complaint from the appeals court to the supreme court, to obtaining a judgment and verdict.”
“For example, in my case, they did not release me when my time was up because I did not have money to give to them,” he said. “First, they told me I did not have money to get the verdict. Second, they came and got me late. I was in jail for more than 10 extra days because I did not mention anything about giving them money.”
Prison officials usually ask for $50 from inmates when they try to obtain a verdict or final judgment from the court so they can get out, and $20 when an inmate wants to file a complaint to an appeals court or the supreme court.
Filing more exotic legal documents, such as a letter seeking a reduced sentence, runs from $350 to $400, he said.
Prison officials hide behind the courts when they seek payments from prisoners, telling them they need to pay the guards who will pay the courts, he said.
“They said the court asks them for money, but they don’t give money to the court,” Srey Chandara said. “So, if we want to have those documents filed with the court, we must pay money to the prison officials.”
It’s not only the prisoners who are on the inside who get dunned by the guards and other officials. Inmates’ family members also get charged cash, often for the same service for which the prisoners has already paid a bribe.
Paying to get legal filings done isn’t the only way prison officials get money from their charges. According to a report by the rights group LICHADO, life inside Cambodia’s prison walls is dominated by corruption.
There is a price tag attached to every amenity, from sleeping space to recreation time and, according to Srey Chandara, prisoners also have to pay for utilities.
Those who can't afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions, LICHADO said in a 2012 report on prison conditions in Cambodia.
Srey Chandara told RFA he was speaking out because he wants the government to make changes and stop the prison officials from asking for money from the inmates, saying the burden falls most heavily on the poor.
File a complaint
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s Department of Prisons told RFA that if he wants to make changes, Srey Chandara needs to file a complaint with the ministry or the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit.
“If those stories are true, then the citizen who files the complaints will receive protection from the authorities,” prison department spokesman Nut Savna said. “If there are such cases, we can go down there and secretly conduct an informal investigation to find out if there are such issues or not.”
While someone may have a complaint, Nut Savna said the claim has to be specific and concrete, because prisoners are always trying to get their jailers in trouble.
Regarding utilities, Nut Savna said that inmates’ daily utilities usage is covered, but that if any inmate goes over the limited allowance, they have to pay for it.
LICADHO senior official Am Sam Ath said his NGO has received complaints from citizens and the inmates about the irregularities in the prisons.
“We should eliminate those actions,” he said. “If there is any doubt, an investigation should be launched to re-examine those issues.”
Reported for RFA's Khmer Service by Yeang Sothearin. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.