Doung Sovanary pulls a small ring of keys from his belt
and opens the rusty barred doors of Kompong Thom provincial prison, known by
police and NGO workers as one of the filthiest and most crowded prisons in
From the darkness of the prison’s only cell, nearly 80
men peer at Doung Sovanary in silence. The 7-meter-by-15-meter cell, roughly
the size of a tennis court, was built to hold a maximum of 45 inmates. But
at night, it houses nearly triple that number.
The air inside is thick and damp. And from the
cobwebbed ceiling, bundles of the prisoners’ meager belongings—kramas,
cigarettes and plastic water bottles—hang on chains to create more sleeping
Doung Sovanary, who has been a guard here for about
eight years, points to the bare arms and torsos of the inmates. They are
scarred and encrusted with pus from scabies and other infections.
“All of them have skin disease,” the prison’s medical
officer, Chhea Veasna, said, adding that most prisoners also suffer from
diarrhea and malnutrition. Some are also afflicted with malaria.
The heat and dampness, combined with the close
confinement of the living quarters and lack of hygiene, provide a perfect
breeding ground for bacteria and disease, he said.
The toilet, in the corner of the cell next to the
sleeping area, is a series of plastic cans and buckets. There is no running
If one person falls ill, the rest do too, Chhea Veasna
said. And with a small medical kit, containing only multivitamins,
paracetemol, amoxicillin and penicillin, he said he is ill-equipped to treat
Aside from being known for providing some of the worst
living conditions for inmates in the country, Kompong Thom provincial prison
is also one of Cambodia’s oldest prisons.
The building was constructed in 1905, during French
colonial rule, according to the prison’s chief, Chea Yean. It was later
turned into an ammunition storage place in the Lon Nol regime, and was used
again as a prison during the Pol Pot era, he said.
Over the past century, due to time and lack of upkeep,
the roof has caved in and the cement walls of the prison’s original 11 cells
have long since crumbled. Now, only the outer wall and a back room, which
houses the prison’s 10 female inmates, remain of the original structure.
The single cell for male prisoners was rebuilt in 1996
with the help of human rights NGO Licadho and funding from the Australian
government, police and Licadho officials said.
But, with 119 inmates, there is a dire shortage of
living space, Chea Yean said, adding that the tension of being cramped in
such small quarters sometimes spurs violent outbursts from the inmates. He
said they occasionally beat themselves against the cell walls.
“When they stay too long in the cell, they become
stressed,” Chea Yean said. “It is too hot and small. It is not at
Overcrowding is a serious problem for several of
Cambodia’s prisons, affecting prisons in Sihanoukville and Banteay Meanchey
province as well as Kompong Thom, according to a 2001 Licadho report. The
problem, the report said, poses a risk to prisoners’ health and security.
Government officials estimate about 6,100 people are
imprisoned in the 25 prisons nationwide.
Due to overcrowding and lack of maintenance, Kompong
Thom provincial prison has experienced seven attempted escapes in the last
nine months, provincial Police Chief Hang Sithim said. He said that on a few
of those occasions, prisoners were able to simply knock down portions of the
crumbling walls and run out of the compound. None of them, however, escaped
successfully, he said.
A Licadho official in Kompong Thom town said nine
prisoners, allegedly responsible for an attempted escape in July, were
shackled together for a week as punishment. It was a move, the official
said, that could be construed as torture.
The use of shackles “is a violation of prison rules,”
the official said. “But when we investigated, we found they have no choice
and cannot guard the safety of the prison. If we allow [the prisoners] to
stay freely in the cell, it is very hard for the prison guards.”
Most of the prisoners in Kompong Thom provincial prison
have been accused of crimes ranging from petty theft to kidnapping and armed
robbery. The average sentence is less than 5 years. Offenders of more
serious crimes are sent to prisons in other provinces.
But prison chief Chea Yean said that nearly half of the
inmates here have yet to be sentenced in the courts.
Under Cambodian law, suspects must be brought to trial
within six months of being detained.
Chea Yean said the longest anyone has been at the
prison without being sentenced is about four months. While he said excessive
pre-trial detention has not been a problem in his prison, Licadho reports
show that in the month of June, 168 inmates from 17 prisons across the
country were being detained excessively awaiting trial.
At Kompong Thom provincial prison, the more serious
offenders are kept within the outer wall of the former prison building,
while minor offenders are allowed to wander in the surrounding barb-wired
compound, Chea Yean said.
Pek Chrein, for instance, is given slightly more
freedom than some of the other inmates. The 39-year-old, thin and disheveled
in his two-piece blue-and-white prison uniform, is allowed to toil in the
prison yard from time to time. His right eye blazes with the redness of
Since his crime was minor—he is serving a nine-month
sentence for stealing a duck—he can occupy his remaining days in prison
chopping firewood or building wooden beds and tables outdoors inside the
His wife lives close by and visits him during the
allotted visiting times on Thursdays and Fridays, he said, and often brings
him food to supplement his prison rations.
Chea Yean said families and visitors are encouraged to
bring food for the inmates because the prison food supply is so limited. The
Ministry of Interior provides about $0.25 per prisoner each day for their
twice-daily meals, which is enough for only some rice and cheap vegetables,
the prison chief said.
“People complain they are hungry to us, they are
starving,” said a Licadho official in Phnom Penh. “Across the country, this
is a problem.”
According to one inmate here: “The rice is not real
rice. It is mixed with stones.... It is not so nice.”
Next to the prison’s sheltered outdoor wood stove,
where the food is being prepared, Pay Youn, 34, sits idly. The former farmer
said he is serving a six-month sentence for practicing medicine without
proper credentials. He has received medical training, he said, but is not a
doctor. Yet when his neighbor asked him to give an injection of penicillin
to a sick patient, Pay Youn said he complied. The patient, a 63-year-old
woman, later died and Pay Youn was sent to prison.
He said he has completed about half his sentence. When
he is freed, he said, he will be unemployed.
Chea Yean said there are no adequate facilities in the
prison for gardening or exercising, let alone work training. And adding to
the shortage of space, part of the grounds was flooded with sewage after the
underground sewage system backed up. Chea Yean said the prison officials now
manually transport human excrement from the prison to empty in nearby rice
From 7:30 am, when the inmates are awakened, to their 6
pm bedtime, there is little for them to do, Chea Yean said.
Conditions for the prison’s 45 guards, six of whom are
female, are not much better, he said.
The guards said that the Ministry of Interior pays them
about $15 per month and supplies their food. Their meals, they said, are
similar to what the prisoners eat.
Although some of the guards live nearby, Chea Yean
said, others stay at the prison, sleeping under the leaky shelter of the
prison’s foyer or setting up camp outdoors. Some stay in the “interrogation
room”—an open area covered by tarpaulin—along with the overflow of prisoners
who cannot fit inside the cell.
Chea Yean said Ministry of Interior officials have
promised to relocate Kompong Thom provincial prison to a new facility on the
outskirts of town. But, he said, as of yet, there has been no move to build
such a facility.
Samkol Sokhan, chief of the Ministry of Interior’s
prison department, said the ministry intended to build new prisons in
Kompong Thom and Takeo province, where the prison also faces collapse. But,
he said, those plans were thwarted due to a lack of funds.
He said the ministry estimated that it would cost about
$800,000 to build a new 200-person capacity prison that meets international
“We have a project but we have no money to do it,”
Samkol Sokhan said, adding that the ministry also lacked money to repair the
He declined to disclose the ministry’s prison budget.
Back at Kompong Thom provincial prison, Chea Yean runs
his right hand along the outer wall.
“See this?” the prison chief said, shaking his head.
“We need to knock it down and rebuild it.”
The cement crumbles at his touch.
By Saing Soenthrith and Wency Leung
Archived from The Cambodia Daily