Prisoners’ families say they can spend up to hundreds of dollars a month trying to keep their relatives in overcrowded jails healthy — driving some families into debt — as officials acknowledge that the nationwide drug crackdown is putting heavy pressure on the country’s prisons and courts.
Last month, authorities announced another rise in drug-related arrests for the first half of the year — claiming that the closure of clubs amid coronavirus was making drug users easier to find — putting more suspects into Cambodia’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.
Kol Sat, whose husband has been imprisoned in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar for over a year, said her husband was struggling with high blood-pressure, and she worried he wouldn’t survive on standard prison food.
“I go to see him once a week to send food, vegetables and meat,” Sat said.
Between the prison expenses, rent and not having her husband to earn money, she has needed to take out loans to survive, she said.
“[I’m] borrowing more money to pay expenses,” she said.
Sat asked that the name of her husband, who is a politician, not be used for fear of retribution.
During the height of coronavirus-related lockdowns, Prey Sar was closed to visitors, and Sat was unable to visit her husband in person. Nevertheless, she still delivered food every week via prison guards, she said.
Another woman, a shoe seller in O’Russey Market, said she had an uncle in prison for drug-related crimes for more than five years. He was over 60 years old, and was often sick, she said.
“I have to send money to him every month — sometimes $50, sometimes $100-200, or more when he is sick,” she said. “If I don’t give it he will die, with nothing to eat. He will die.”
The food provided by the prison was “pig food,” and “no one is treated well without money,” said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear her uncle would face worse treatment.
A woman with a 18-year-old grandson in prison gave a similar account.
“He gets only two meals a day and his mother always sends money every month to buy food, drinks, and paid for a fan in his cell,” she said, requesting anonymity for similar reasons.
The grandson, also in jail for drug-related crimes, could buy items such as energy drinks inside, but they were twice as expensive as outside prison, she said.
Meas Vyrith, secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said drug arrests had significantly increased in the first of half of this year compared to the year prior.
He said part of the reason for the increase was coronavirus: With clubs and bars closed, drug use was more out in the open, he claimed.
“The increase in drug crackdowns in the first half of this year is due to the fact that, during Covid-19 period, all clubs and bars were closed, so the drug users came out and the authorities could find them,” Vyrith said.
Vyrith acknowledged that the drug crackdown was leading to prison overcrowding.
“More than 50 percent of inmates in the prisons are criminals involved in drug offenses, which is one of the reasons for the overcrowding,” he said. Nevertheless, he said the arrests were necessary to maintain public order.
“The crackdown on drug offenses must be taken seriously, because when they get out of prison they will be more active,” he said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the ministry’s campaign, starting this year, to accelerate court processing was not about letting prisoners walk free.
“The campaign to resolve the congestion of this case is not a campaign to release 10,000 prisoners, it is a campaign to expedite the court process, and to get the cases done quickly and issue a final verdict as soon as possible,” he said.
Nevertheless, speeding up the process could help with the overcrowding, he said.
“If there is a final verdict, the prison can move him from one place to another that is less overcrowded,” Malin said. Not all verdicts would require a prison sentence, he added.
Malin acknowledged that the nationwide drug campaign was putting pressure on the justice system. “It has not yet responded to the growth of cases from the drug prevention and suppression campaign,” he said.
But the construction of new prisons, legal reforms, and several other initiatives were working to reduce overcrowding both in the short and long term, he said.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at rights group Licadho, said the overcrowding of prisons had become a health issue.
“There are only [meant to be] 10 people in a cell, but due to the overcrowding, it houses up to 30 people, which makes prisoners sleep close to each other, sleeping on their side,” Sam Ath said. “The crowding can cause anxiety, high blood pressure and heart attacks. If there is an infection, it can be contagious.”
Soeng Senkaruna, spokesman for rights group Adhoc, said he also wanted to see a review of the food given to prisoners.
A report by Amnesty International has claimed that the government’s anti-drug campaign is causing human rights violations without reducing drug use and related harms.