A visit to prison in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Last time I was in Siem Reap, during Pchum Ben (which is the local thanksgiving festival,) I had arranged to meet an old friend that I’d first met in 2004. We’ve stayed in touch mainly through Facebook as well as through my sporadic visits. My friend is a tuktuk driver.

Now, tuktuk drivers have a life that would be recognised by taxi drivers everywhere. Times of busyness punctuated by long periods waiting for a job: for the next flight to arrive, or for the tourist season to pick-up.

As I found in Bangkok, being a western tourist – one becomes an easy mark for tuktuk drivers to do a little side business. In Bangkok the patter goes: “Hey mister, you want ride?”  I shake my head. “You want girl?” No thanks I say.  “Perhaps you like boy?” he tries. I wave him away.

In Siem Reap there seem to be just two levels to the hustle. “You want ride?” And if you say ‘no thanks’ then one is frequently asked: “you want drugs?”  Which I’m told is usually the offer of marijuana. Western backpackers probably generate a lot of business in this respect. Me? I’ve never used dope, though I did unsuccessfully try inhaling on a soggy spliff back when I was a student.

Now back to my friend. We had agreed to meet but he never showed up.

That was unusual, so Savong helped me locate my friend. We asked dozens of tuktuk drivers if they knew where he was. We showed photos. We tried bars where he was known to hang out. Nothing. He had disappeared.

Then word came through from one of the drivers. The police had – in an anti-gambling sting – raided a house and arrested several drivers who were gambling: betting on cards which is illegal in Cambodia. You can bet on kick-boxing, and you can put money on volleyball games, but you can’t gamble with cards. My friend was one of 12 arrested.

Savong phoned a policeman friend and we found out where our friend had been taken: to a prison on the south-eastern edge of town. The  Armed Forces Prison.

Now this is the good prison. There’s another prison in town which is older and with conditions that are, I’m told, far worse.

We went out to visit the next day. The photo above shows me standing on the driveway. Far from being a cold bastion of incarceration, the front entrance looked, well, festive. Silk banners were flying in the hot October breeze. Families, big and small, rich and poor, were turning up to visit. It felt like picnic day.

We registered our names, and handed in our cellphones, then waited in a small shaded waiting room, watching prisoners in their orange clothing which was more reminiscent in this country of Buddhist monks really, than of the standard prison garb we see on TV.  Some prisoners were carrying out light duties – escorting visitors to the meeting room, and running messages for the guards. One young guy, who clearly loved his role, had the task of announcing to visitors when their inside friend was ready to meet.

He proudly exhorted the two of us: “Mister Savong and Mister Duncan! – your friend is ready to see you!”  His enthusiasm was genuinely infectious.

So we went to the meeting room – a long room with half-height walls to let the breeze through, but divided down the centre by a long bench and chicken wire. Visitors on this side. Prisoners, at least 30 of them, on that side. One of them was my friend.

He lit up! After two weeks he’d had no visitors. The police had taken his phone and he has no family – he’s an orphan – so he had no way of knowing if anybody cared.  His face shone like a beacon.  Well, he had a black-eye also, but it was his smile that I most recall.

In Cambodia the law works upside down. If you are arrested you basically go straight to jail and if you have resources, then you can get a hearing to either plead innocence or plead for a lighter sentence. If you have no resources then basically you have to take what you’re given – in this case 3 – 5 years imprisonment. For a card game.

So no wonder he felt some relief. He had not been forgotten. Touching fingers through the chicken-wire we talked and laughed for a few minutes, then we talked about next steps. I’m helping Savong get a lawyer and we’ll do what we can do get our friend out. I suspect a judge will want to see reparation of some sort: money no-doubt.

The visit was unexpected and on one level incredibly interesting and actually enjoyable. Seeing my friend was really valuable and it honoured a promise I made 11 years ago, that I would never forget my friend. These promises are important to keep.

We were given a scant 15 minutes to talk and right near the end I asked him how he got his black eye.

“There is always a fight over food,” he told me. “Every dinner time, there is not enough food. People fight in our cell.”

“How many people in your cell?” I asked him.

“Twenty one brother. And me.”

And that’s the good prison. I hope upon hope that we can get him out soon.

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