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14 Years: The Horrors of Prey Sar

Khmer Times Share:
Prey Sar is notorious for its terrible conditions and harsh treatment of prisoners. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Srey Chandara stood to the side of a large group of supporters congregating in front of the Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters, breathing the air deeply while mired in thought.
 
Nobody understands the fight to secure the release of the five human rights officials now detained by the government better than Mr. Chandara, who spent 14 years in jail and is now advocating for wholesale changes to the country’s moribund prison system.
 
Mr. Chandara walked out of Prey Sar prison on May 12. He would have left more than 10 days earlier, but prison officials demanded a $50 bribe his family did not have to process his exit papers.
 
The injustice was a sadly fitting end to his time in Prey Sar, where he describes horrors few could possibly understand and eye-opening corruption that seems to know no bounds.
 
The 56-year-old former policeman from Kampong Thom remembers November 7, 2002, like it was yesterday. On that day 14 years ago, he was convicted of motorbike theft that he said was related to a personal dispute with a former Funcinpec colleague he had a falling out with. He left his job on the police force due to the widespread corruption of his superior officers in 1996, only to find himself on the opposite of the spectrum seeing similar things eight years later.
 
He was transferred from Kampong Thom prison after a year due to his appeal, which made its way up to the Supreme Court before being struck down.
 
For the next 13 years, he was locked up in Prey Sar prison.
 
The overwhelmingly crowded cell that became his home is the stuff of nightmares, he said, and the corruption outside of it often made life even more unbearable.
 
“There is every brand of corruption in there, in every way,” he said. “If the government does not take action to eradicate this corruption, the people who will continue to be affected the most will be the prisoners from poor families.”
 
The disparity in the prison experiences of those with money and those without would even surprise those accustomed to the underside of Cambodian culture. Prison guards ask for payment for even the most basic services.
 
The richest prisoners, often drug kingpins, live lavishly in places like Prey Sar, where they can pay guards for a larger, personal cell, unlimited usage of water and even alcohol or drugs.
 
Those from poor backgrounds like Mr. Chandara, however, are faced with an experience that stringently tests their mental and physical fortitude. The hot season is the worst time, he said, because those without the money to bribe prison officials are packed into cells where they can barely even scratch themselves, much less move.
 
Without money, prisoners are only able to get three to four liters of water per day for bathing and personal use. Mr. Chandara had to pay 10,000 riel a month just to get an extra bucket of water each day.
 
“If you want to live comfortably, you have to pay a room manager 150,000 riel. Rich people, especially drug dealers, pay more and get a room with a telephone and alcohol to drink,” he said. “Prisoners from poor families are living in situations no different from hell, living in a room with no phone and no services that almost drove me and the other prisoners crazy.”
 
Prison guards are shakedown artists, even going so far as to extort family members spending their last cents to come visit frantically terrified relatives detained in Prey Sar, he said. Sometimes, they would even force each family to pay for a chance to see their loved one.
 
“When our family gave him 5,000 or 10,000 riel, they were happy,” he said. “But when they got 1,000 riel, they were suddenly very unhappy.”
 
Even the act of fighting your case was made eminently more difficult by money-hungry guards looking to squeeze every cent out of desperate prisoners.
 
“They ask for $20 whenever any prisoner wants to make an appeal or take their case to the Supreme Court,” he said. Even leaving the prison, as he saw, is seen as a ripe moment for profit by prison guards.
 
Securing a reduced sentence or pardon is a process entirely operated under the thumb of prison bosses offering help to the highest bidder. Just to get a prison guard to consider you for a pardon, you have to come up with at least $350, an astronomical sum for prisoners scraping by on whatever their families can pull together. No amount of good deeds can make up for the price, he said.
 
“I had to ask prison officials to stop discriminating and stop taking money from jailed prisoners,” he said. “In jail, I never heard a word from guards that didn’t involve a dollar.”
 
The rampant drug trade and usage in prisons has been well-documented, but the government has yet to make any real headway in dealing with the issue. Government officials cite a bevy of reasons for their inability to stem the tide against drugs in prison, but the answer is obvious to anyone with eyes, Mr. Chandara said.
 
“How could you wonder about drug trafficking in jail?” a frustrated Mr. Chandara asked. “If the prison officials don’t bring it, who can take the drugs into prison? Whenever our relatives come to visit, they search everything top to bottom.”
 
Despite the ordeal Mr. Chandara was forced to live through, he has absolutely no fear of reprisals for his comments about the prison system, and actively hopes that speaking out will force the government to make urgent and legitimate changes to the way the country’s prisons are run. Even in the face of his past, he says he has no malice or revenge in his heart, and only wants to reveal the truth about Prey Sar so people know what is actually happening.
 
“If there is no change, the lives of prisoners from poor families will be much more difficult than it already is,” he said. “I heard that there is a prison for rent, so the poor prisoners will have even more difficulty because they have no money for bribes. Guards discriminate between rich and poor.”
 
Prison Complacency
 
The lackluster conditions described by Mr. Chandara are not news to anyone who has been paying close attention to the prison system in recent years.
 
Last December 6, 32 prison officials in Rattanakiri province put inked thumbs down on a complaint they sent to the Prison Department asking for the investigation and removal of Tin Sovanny, the provincial prison director.
 
Officials cited years of open-faced abuse of the prison by Mr. Sovanny, saying he brazenly used prisoners for his own businesses, forced female prisoners to have sex with him hundreds of times, let certain rich prisoners own cellphones and loaned 65 prisoners out to friends so they could work as cooks and laborers.  
 
He was later cleared by the Prison Department after an investigation and the 32 people who signed the complaint were either moved to other prisons or fired. In their report, they even admitted that Mr. Sovanny had made “some small mistakes.” But the investigation’s report said there was no way he could have forced a prisoner into sex because she was “rather old,” and did not see any problem with Mr. Sovanny using prisoners to clean his house and work as laborers for friends.
 
According to a January 2015 report from human rights group Licadho entitled “Rights at a Price: Life Inside Cambodia’s Prisons,” abuse, discrimination, exploitation, corruption and the influence of powerful leaders is endemic within the country’s prisons. Even though reform efforts are gaining steam, prisons are still rife with the maladies Mr. Chandara described.
 
“Those who do not have money are living in extremely difficult conditions as they usually sleep on the floor, they were forced to work inappropriately and in some cases they were not allowed to go outside of the prison’s room. Getting special privileges is gained by spending money,” the report said.
 
Spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Ly Sophanna said he was “surprised” to hear that prison officials were taking money from prisoners despite decades of reports from dozens of news outlets and human rights groups highlighting the practice. Mr. Sophanna then upped the ante on his comment, denying that any prison officials were forcing prisoners to pay to have their exit documents sent to the court for approval.
 
He called on those making these claims to “cooperate with the court” for an investigation.
 
Nuth Savna, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, said citizens have every right to criticize the prison system before parroting Mr. Sophanna’s advice of sending complaints to the Interior Ministry and helping with an “investigation.”
 
If all the problems are true, he claimed, citizens who complain will get “protection” from authorities.
 
“I ask people filing complaints to have something to base it on because in the past, some detainees fabricated stories to defame prison officials due to their strictness,” Mr. Savna said.
 
There are 27 prisons and nearly 20,000 prisoners, only 30 percent of whom have received a final judgment from the court, according to statistics from the General Department of Prisons.
 
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for Licadho, said civil society groups had been receiving hundreds of complaints for citizens and detainees about the conditions in prisons and the backbreaking corruption that was draining already poor family members.
 
“We should eliminate all actions, and if there are any doubts, there should be an investigation to look over the issue,” he said.
 
A recent report by Transparency International found that Cambodia was the most corrupt country in the Asean region. Nearly 20 percent of the country, or three million people, are living below the poverty line, with millions more living right above it.
 
These factors make it impossible for many of the country’s poorest residents to even survive prison life, or be truly rehabilitated after living in nightmarish conditions for years. The prison system, Mr. Chandara said, is only built to rehabilitate those who can afford it.
 
“It is heaven for those who have money, because they have only lost their right to go for a walk,” he said. “But if you want to know what hell looks like, enter Prey Sar prison and you will know.”

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