The story about my visit to a friend in prison hit a nerve I think, because several people told me their stories of Cambodians who have ended up in prison, serving long sentences either for minor offenses (like my friend) or for totally trumped-up charges.
One organisation that works in this arena is LICADHO – the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. They have their work cut out for them. They monitor 18 prisons and their reports show that, inside prison walls, life is dominated by corruption.
As they say: “There is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable, from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.”
For the past 20 years, on International Human Rights Day, LICADHO has provided small packages of extra food to the prison population and entertainment such as games, traditional dancing and shows performed by the prisoners themselves as well as speeches on the importance and universality of fundamental human rights.
What we do
LICADHO believes that regular visits by prison researchers deter abuses in prison and make it easier for LICADHO to intervene when they do occur. LICADHO’s prison activities include:
- Interview incoming pretrial detainees to ensure that they have legal representation and can communicate with their families
- Check for violations of pretrial detainees’ rights, such as illegal arrests and excessive pretrial detention/li>
- Monitor the actions of court and prison officials to ensure that the legal process is conducted properly/li>
- Assist families in visiting their relatives in prison and provide assistance in avoiding corruption/li>
- Provide legal assistance, advice and support to prisoners who have suffered human rights abuses in prison or in police custody/li>
- Work with prison and court authorities to ensure the timely release of convicted prisoners who complete their sentences/li>
- Distribute food and materials to prisoners/li>
- Provide medical treatment for prisoners and prison staff (provided by LICADHO’s Medical Office)/li>
LICADHO’s prison researchers also monitor living conditions in the prisons, looking at issues such as the quality of food, water, sanitation, the size and cleanliness of living areas, and exercise for prisoners outside of their cells. Information about prison conditions and any violations of prisoners’ rights are compiled for LICADHO reports and used for other advocacy purposes.
LICADHO is currently the only NGO in Cambodia with access to prisons that regularly shares its findings with the public.
They have a particular focus on basic human rights, (food, education, health,) as well as a determination to improve the lot of children who are either in prison on charges (sometimes streets are ‘swept’ of beggars) or are children of adults who have been incarcerated.
At the end of April 2014 there were a total of 280 juvenile prisoners incarcerated in the 18 prisons monitored by LICADHO, a more than 50 percent drop in the juvenile prison population since 2011. In addition there were 13 pregnant women and 40 children living with their incarcerated mothers.
Their research into prisons does not make easy reading when you know somebody who is stuck inside a Cambodian jail. One guy who contacted me talked about a conversation he’d had with a prison guard who admitted, more or less, to beating-up prisoners. His rationale: “we want prison life to be less attractive than life in poverty outside of prison.”
For more on LICADHO’s Prison Project read PRISON PROJECT.
Also Caritas Cambodia and education-based NGO This Life Cambodia run positive programs assisting prisoners and their families. These are well worth checking out and supporting.
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