Inside the Cambodian Correctional System

Article excerpt

Introduction

It is hell on earth, we are between animal and human. (A prisoner)

With a salary of about $50 a month, we are prisoners without a verdict. (A guard)

Academic research on Cambodia's correctional system is scarce. The prison system forms a significant part of the country's criminal justice system, yet little is known about its operation and problems. This paper draws from the first author's visit, between 2007 and 2008, to eight Cambodian prisons. As part of his doctoral research on human traffickers, he interviewed 91 convicted traffickers, 200 prisoners convicted of other crimes, 5 prison directors, 10 deputy directors and 40 guards. In addition, Cambodian attitudes to crime and punishment are discussed, drawing from three sweeps of the United Nations International Crime Victim Survey (UNICVS) conducted in 2001, 2006 and 2007.

We provide insights into the correctional system by focusing on three aspects: operation, irregularities and life in prisons, to show that Cambodian prisons are more than just places of punishment. Each one is a society within the larger society, characterised by inequality, inequity, hierarchy and other aspects of life observed in Cambodian society. For instance, corrupt practices and abuse of power were reported by both prisoners and guards. Cambodian prisons are filled by the poor, the powerless, the poorly-educated and those with few connections. Most detainees complained that they were treated as if they were 'less than human'. Whilst not all officers were corrupt, our data reveals that a majority of them engaged in various corrupt practices.

Methods

A two-step technique was used for the prisons visits. During a pilot study between November 2007 and January 2008, six of the eight prisons in the sample were visited. It provided an opportunity to talk to prison officers and detainees so as to assess the feasibility of future interviews, build relationships with potential participants, and obtain approval of the Ministry of the Interior. The approval of a detailed research ethics submission (to the relevant University ethics committee) in relation to the main task of (semi-structured) interviewing those incarcerated for human trafficking was required before commencing the interviews. Formal consent was required from each participant and particular attention was given to the problems of interviewing in a closed institutional setting *. Fieldwork in the eight prisons took place between July 2008 and June 2009. Depending on the number of interviews, 3 to 28 days were spent at each prison, while other information and statistics were also collected.

Overall 346 individuals (176 males and 170 females) were interviewed, including inmates convicted or awaiting trial for human trafficking and other crimes, and prison officers of varying ranks (see 'Table 2'). Most of the interviews were in Khmer (Cambodia's official language). Some interviews with Vietnamese detainees were in Vietnamese as they felt more comfortable conversing in their native language. In three prisons, the interviews occurred under the scrutiny of a guard. In one prison only interviews conducted in Khmer were allowed. No camera or voice recorder was allowed in any prison.

The first ** author set out to immerse himself into prison life by walking around the prison compound, observing activities, having lunch with officers and inmates inside the prison, and visiting detainees' cells. This allowed him to establish a rapport with detainees and officers, and he found most participants friendly and cooperative.

Overview

The national number of recorded criminal events *** has fallen from 5,691 to 2,881 between 2003 and 2008 (NPC, 2004; NPC, 2005; NPC, 2006; NPC, 2007; NPC, 2008; NPC, 2009). However, the prison population over the last 16 years has grown by 435%, from 2,490 (969 on remand) in 1995 (APCCA cited in Egger, 2005) to 13,325 (over 4,000 on remand) in March 2010. …