According to human rights group Licadho, prison occupancy in Cambodia is alarmingly close to 180 percent, making the country’s prison system among the 25 most overcrowded in the world. The group warned that if reforms aren’t immediately implemented to curb the prison population boom, Cambodia’s prison system could end up being the most overcrowded in the world as soon as 2019.
Licadho said that as of April this year, Cambodia's total prison population stood at 15,001, which was a 12.6 percent increase compared with last year. The records of Cambodia’s General Department of Prisons showed that they processed 6,836 new admissions last year, which represented almost half the prison population.
Seven years ago, Licadho notified authorities that the 18 prisons monitored by the group were already filled to capacity and called for drastic judicial reforms to reduce the number of inmates in dilapidated prison cells. But it seems their petition went unheeded because the number of prisoners has continued to rise, despite the absence of programmes to expand and improve the country’s prison facilities.
Based on Licadho’s documentation, there are three factors that contributed to the prison overcrowding in Cambodia: The practice of detaining those who can’t pay criminal fines, a pilot programme in which pre-trial inmates were transferred to a community drug detention centre, and the use of prison sentences that aren’t commensurate with the crimes committed.
Human rights advocates have raised concerns that people convicted of minor crimes are handed excessively long prison sentences. For example, a juvenile in Sihanoukville was sentenced to six months imprisonment for breaking a window. In Svay Rieng, an 18-year-old man was arrested last year for stealing a chicken and was sentenced to a year in prison. In Kampong Cham, a man was arrested and charged with stealing a bottle of cooking oil and was later convicted and sentenced to seven months in jail for theft.
As a preliminary reform measure, Licadho proposed that a nationwide survey of the country’s prisons be conducted by the government and preferably assisted by an international partner in order to determine the system’s true capacity. Next, the government should ‘compile a reliable and accurate profile of the prison population to help inform criminal justice policy decisions.’ The evaluation of the prison population should include details such as sentence length and the age of offenders.
Licadho also reminded the government that the practice of detaining individuals who can’t afford to pay fines costs the state more money because of the expense of incarceration. Instead of automatic imprisonment for every offense committed, they suggested the use of non-custodial sentences as a possible response to petty crimes.
Licadho believes that alternative sentencing measures could the reduce prison population by half. They added that ‘judicious use of prosecutions’ can be easily accomplished if government is ready to provide adequate resources to the courts, police and other institutions of the judiciary. This is necessary so that ‘clear processes and procedures for monitoring adherence to non-custodial sentences’ can be established.
The government should seriously consider the recommendations submitted by Licadho, especially the development of a probation department and the use of alternative sentencing, if it wants to improve the country’s prison system. Otherwise, it will end up having to keep converting abandoned buildings into makeshift prison cells as it has had to in Pailin City.