Let rich inmates pay for nicer jails, Cambodian minister says

PHNOM PENH • Cambodia's Interior Minister has suggested the construction of more luxurious pay-to-stay prison blocks for wealthy inmates to help alleviate severe overcrowding.

The country's prison population swelled to more than 28,000 inmates last year, well over the system's capacity.

The Prisons Department on Tuesday released its annual report, which showed that the prison population had ballooned by some 30 per cent last year, to 28,414. Of these, more than 10,000 inmates were locked up in pre-trial detention - an issue consistently flagged by the United Nation's human rights body and rights groups.

There were around 22,000 inmates in 2016, with 7,500 in detention awaiting trial.

The spike coincided with a controversial drug crackdown started by law enforcement at the beginning of last year that has so far seen 17,800 arrests, the majority of whom were small-time drug users.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Tuesday acknowledged the longstanding overcrowding issue and suggesting that more holding cells were required. He pointed to a privately built block for wealthy inmates at Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison as a model.

"Obviously, we will check and test the Prey Sar prison first, and if this test is successful, we will start to implement it in other prisons, such as in Siem Reap, Battambang, Svay Rieng, Kampong Cham, Takeo, Stung Treng and some provinces," he said. Construction was 60 per cent complete on the Prey Sar facility.

  • 28,000

    Number of inmates in Cambodia's jails today.

    30%

    Last year's increase in the prison population, which coincided with a controversial drug crackdown started by law enforcement at the beginning of last year that has so far seen 17,800 arrests.

The minister said legal provisions were needed to facilitate private investment in prison infrastructure.

Mr Sar Kheng announced the construction of the "hotel-like" prison block at Prey Sar last year, saying inmates could pay to use the facilities.

These would be a far cry from typical Cambodian prison cells, where scores of inmates often share a single latrine and ailments such as nutritional deficiencies, abnormal physical weakness, diarrhoea and scabies are common.

Observers have raised concerns that allowing prisoners with disposable incomes to live more comfortable lives would make existing informal economic divides in the prison population official.

A 2015 prison report by rights group Licadho also found that cash flow already "dictated" life inside Cambodia's prisons, with inmates forced to pay bribes for everything from food, water and medical treatment to visits from loved ones.

THE PHNOM PENH POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline 'Let rich inmates pay for nicer jails, Cambodian minister says'. Print Edition | Subscribe