Prison overcrowding continues to be a major issue in Cambodia. There has been a recent increase in the prison population nationwide. The number of prisoners rose from 15,165 in 2014 to 17,522 in 2015, although the capacity of the Kingdom’s prisons is estimated to be only 8,500 inmates. Occupancy rate amounts to 206,1%.
The spike was attributed to increased drug arrests and the slow justice system. Only a third of prisoners have received a final verdict in their cases.
There are calls for a lasting and meaningful solution to overcrowding in Cambodian prisons. LICADHO calls for a fundamental shift away from the use of pre-trial detention, and a nationwide increase in alternative non-prison sentencing for less serious offences.
It is rare for inmates to be properly separated according to their security ranking. As a result, petty criminals are often housed in the same cells as murderers and rapists.
Detainees on remand (69%) are often held in worse conditions than convicted prisoners. 34,9% are pre-trial and 34,1% are waiting for a final judgment.
Conditions of detention in Cambodia are characterized by limited access to basic needs such as food, water, ventilation and natural sunlight. However, individual circumstances can vary greatly, usually in accordance with the prisoner’s financial status.
In a survey of 479 female inmates conducted in 2014, LICADHO found that more than one third were accused or convicted of drug related offenses, whilst another third were being held for minor offences such as theft, receiving stolen goods, breach of trust, damaging property and illegal fishing.
Almost all of the 479 women surveyed had dependent children under the age of 18.
At the beginning of 2015, a number of female prisoners were released after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the establishment of a committee of high ranking officials to provide amnesties to pregnant women, and women who were in prison with their young children.
The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) state that when a woman is admitted to prison, the details of her children should be recorded if they are not accompanying the mother to prison. However the majority of prisons surveyed by LICADHO in Cambodia do not have information available. Prison admission procedures, which date back to 2003, do not require that such information be recorded in the official prisoner record, which puts at risk the ability for mothers and their children to maintain contact after the mother is admitted to prison.
In addition, there are no proper procedures in place to determine when or why a young child should live in prison with its mother. Location, the presence of other adults at time of arrest, the identity of arresting authorities and the policy of individual prisons are decisive factors and often prevail over the wishes of the mother and the best interests of the child.
The General Department of Prisons (GDP) and the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans & Youth Rehabilitation (MoSAVY), are responsible for leading the assessment of appropriate custodianship and the safe removal and relocation of a child from prison.
In December 2011, a law was introduced which reduced the maximum age of children allowed to stay in prison with their mothers (from six to three years old), as a result the number of children in Cambodian prisons has dropped by more than 50%.
As of November 2014, only four Cambodian prisons provided children with basic, on-site educational and recreational opportunities, all of which were run by NGOs.
Juveniles in detention in Cambodia are subject to the same abuse, humiliations and degradations as adults, and are equally likely to be treated according to their financial status rather than their age.
There have been attempts in many prisons to fully separate the adult and juvenile detainees, however there remain a number of prisons where there is no such separation or the separation depends on prison occupancy rates.
Juveniles in Cambodian prisons are overwhelmingly from poor backgrounds and their families are likely to struggle to support them financially and materially. Due to the financial hierarchy that defines Cambodia’s prison system, this already vulnerable group is at increased risk of exploitation and subordination. Some fall under the control of richer, adult prisoners who become their ‘godfathers’ and for whom they carry out tasks in return for protection, increased out-of-cell time or small amounts of money. These protectors can quickly become abusive if tasks are not carried out to their satisfaction or the children fall out of favor.
Juvenile needs - physical, mental, educational and social - are rarely catered for in Cambodian prisons. A juvenile prisoners’ access to services and goods is determined by their wealth, as is the frequency of family visits. The availability of nutritious food, regular recreation and sport cannot be guaranteed without payment.
Juvenile girls held in Cambodian prisons are particularly vulnerable and are unlikely to receive special care covered by the Beijing rules.
There is a pressing need for alternative sentencing and diversionary measures for juveniles.
Pre-trial detention is regularly used as a tactic to threaten and silence human rights defenders and political activists. This detention limits their ability to prepare an effective defense, and sends a message to others that dissent will not be tolerated.
In March 2015, whilst Hun Sen announced the release of the female prisoners, about 200 activists and monks gathered in front of the women’s affairs ministry to demand that the government respect women rights and release 12 activists (11 of whom are women) detained for their involvement in land disputes related to the Boeung Kak development project in the Cambodian capital. These activists argue that the project backed by a lawmaker from Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party has caused flooding in the community. Police confiscated fake coffins from the protestors, which were to symbolize the death of women’s rights. Hun Sen has to date rejected a public plea from 30 civil society organizations calling on the government to release the prisoners.
In July 2015, 11 activists of the PSNC party were condemned to between 7 and 20 years in prison for participating in a non-authorized demonstration.
In August 2015, Hong Sok Hour, a French Cambodian senator was arrested for having published a false copy of a treaty with Vietnam on his Facebook account, a strategy employed by the opposition in order to presents Hus Sen as subservient to Hanoi.[^1]
According to LICADHO, prison health staff are not involved in assessing the physical or mental impacts of punishment on prisoners, either during punishment or following incidents of prison violence.
Prison law states that prisoners with mental illness should receive specific health care and funding has been allocated as part of a strategy to improve mental health education and treatment programs for prisoners. Despite this, it appears little attempt is being made to assess the mental wellbeing of inmates on arrival or provide appropriate treatment for those with obvious problems.
According to the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation [^1] (TPO), the leading Cambodian NGO in the field of mental health and psychosocial interventions, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and trauma are the most prevalent mental health problems in Cambodian prisons, with many unable to access the treatment they need.
[^1]:TPO is main Cambodian NGO focusing in mental health and psychosocial reinsertion of prisoners.