(THE PHNOM PENH POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - 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 (2017), well over the system's capacity.
The Prisons Department on Tuesday (Feb 20) released its annual report, which showed that the prison population had ballooned by some 30 per cent last year, to 28,414, with more than 10,000 of the system's inmates locked up in pre-trial detention - an issue consistently flagged by the United Nation's human rights body and rights groups.
Last year, there were around 22,000 inmates, 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. The campaign is expected to continue at least until the July national elections.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Tuesday acknowledged the longstanding overcrowding issue, suggesting that more holding cells were required, specifically pointing out 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.
The minister added that provisions were needed to facilitate private investment in prison infrastructure, calling on firms to be open to such projects.
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.
They 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.
Tuesday's report noted that construction was 60 per cent complete on the Prey Sar facility.
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.
Licadho's Am Sam Ath agreed yesterday that there was a need for more housing for prisoners, but said it was not clear if providing luxury prisons was the solution.
If these pay-to-stay facilities were to become prevalent, he said, there would be an unfair disparity between the living conditions for wealthier and poorer inmates.
Prisons Department officials on Tuesday did not provide figures for the prison system's exact capacity, and the department's deputy director San Keo would only say the capacity had doubled since 2016.
"There are some small rooms and some large rooms. So we can say that it has doubled the number of inmates across the whole country."
In 2015, Licadho reported that the prison capacity across the country to be around 8,500, making the current population more than three times over the limit. Even a doubling of this capacity to 17,000, as per Mr Keo's claim, would still leave prisons at 165 per cent capacity.
Rather than attribute the spike in inmates to the drug crackdown's nearly 18,000 arrests, Prisons Department spokesman Nuth Savna said the increase was due to improving economic prospects, better trade and an influx of foreign investment.
He said that if trade activities and investment in the area had increased, the population would also increase as people were attracted to live or work in the area. This would lead to a rise in crime rate as well, he added.