Cambodian prisons used to be a horror story of violence and starvation, not to mention corruption. But they seem to have cleaned up their act – and today the focus is more on rehabilitation. My friend Sopin, or just plain Pin, has been to prison twice on drugs charges – weed – and told me that these places used to be places of fear. Now, he told me, they’re places of learning and counseling.
On December 28th I went out to visit him with a mutual friend Savong whom I’ve known since 2004 when Pin introduced me to Savong. We subsequently went on to build a school in the countryside. Pin was never central to the school project, but he is the person who connected Savong and me together. He was the key to the story that basically changed my life.
Pin is a handsome guy, with chiseled features and deep, but sparkling eyes. He has a natural charm that belies the fact that he endured a terrible upbriging. He knows no family and was raised at a Buddhist Monastery: Wat Thmey – which is known as the killing fields pagoda in Siem Reap. On display there are skulls and bones from many hundred who were slaughtered during the genocide of the 1970s. After the years of genocide, when a quarter of the population lost their lives in Cambodia, the nation then endured years of poverty, cut off from world trade or aid. Cambodia was so poor it could not grow enough rice to feed its own people. Children like Pin became beggars at age 6, and some survived eating insects and the bark off trees. Monasteries took these kids in, and it was at Wat Thmey that Savong grew up with Pin. They have a loyalty that goes way back, though in recent years this has been strained by Savong’s relentless drive to become a businessman and Pin’s loose, somewhat lost lifestyle – dabbling in work and trying out drugs. He served some time as a medic assistant in the army, a time he enjoyed, but three years ago he got arrested for smoking dope and engaging in gambling: in Cambodia you are not allowed to gamble for money – unless you’re a Chinese tourist in which case your Casino dollars are welcome. We’re talking about a weekly poker game.
On that occasion we organised a lawyer and he helped trim 2 years off Pin’s 5 year sentence. Pin resided in Siem Reap Prison where I visited him once. He had a black eye due to a fight in his cell – where 21 prisoners shared meagre food and a shortage of space.
But he got released after 3 years and photos show that he actually put on weight. Far from the sallow, hungry image of my imagination, Sopin emerged fit and healthy.
It was not to last. With a record against his name, in a land where everyone carries around Cambodia ID, and everyone seems to sport a CV in the search for good jobs, Pin couldn’t get work. A tuk tuk we’d given him 5 years earlier had been lost to drugs and gambling. Soon he was back with mates who supplied him once more with drugs. It was only a matter of time before he got arrested again. This time he was sent to another prison – one aimed at re-education and rehabilitation.
Savong and I went out to visit on December 28th. The prison consisted of two main buildings set inside a flat dusty spread of farmland. On the left were the kitchens and the classrooms while the building on the right housed the prisoners, just 42 of them. The gap between the two ground-level buildings was roofed over so that people could take advantage of the shade. We visited in the ‘cool’ season but the sun was already scorching when we came out that afternoon.
The centre is minimum security, with a basic 8ft fence around the grounds, and a guards station at the front gate. This is where we enquired whether we could meet Pin and meet the chief warden. The atmosphere was extremely casual.
As we strode in the 100 metres toward the two buildings we could see at least a dozen prisoners gathering to chat with each other and meeting visitors. Pin saw us and ran up and gave me a mighty hug. He was really happy to see two friends. He’d not had other visitors in months and while I talked to him, Savong asked a guard whether he could discuss Pin’s case with the chief warden. I didn’t realise the guy he was talking to was a guard: I thought he was one of the prisoners. Like them he wore a t-shirt, though his was red where everyone else was in blue.
Pin was in good spirits, and he showed me around the prison; the classrooms where they learned cooking and other life skills, as well as the main office in which I could see Savong busy in discussion. A few minutes into our meet up a small boy in blue pants and blue t-shirt came up to Pin and wrapped himself around Pins legs.
“He’s 10,” Pin explained. He was clinging to Pin and sensed something was up. Our conversation spread out and was shared by other prisoners, all who seemed pretty relaxed though a couple of older guys looked pretty ravaged by drugs. They stuck to themselves. Pin explained how he’d become the informal leader of the 42 prisoners, and had made sure the small boy – who was inside for glue sniffing (his parents were deemed unable to provide adequate care,) – was getting adequate care. Pin had clearly become a father figure for the boy.
Soon, Savong came out and explained that the prison was at a tipping point with Sopin. He’d made good progress, and the warden had noted our big hug too: an indication that Pin had a support network outside the prison gates. Finally they said that rehab prison was costly to provide and that Pin had been unable to pay anything toward the rehab. Technically he owed the Centre. It wasn’t a bribe, but it is hard to explain the leeway that the Chief Warden had at his disposal. What we did was suggest a few hundred dollars would settle what was owing, as well we could offer the promise to support Pin once on the outside. Would this be enough for the prison to let our friend go? Suddenly this seemed to be on the cards.
Pin realised that the course of the discussion was about his future – and he could sense the possibility of an early release – and as I tried talking to him he really couldn’t concentrate on our particular conversation. He indicated that his heart was jumping out of his rib cage. His future was on the line.
Savong said he needed to get back into town to get some cash, and he left me there so we could talk some more. Meanwhile the junior guard, the guy with the red shirt, was summoned to the Chief’s office and told that Pin could be released immediately. Word got around everyone in the shaded area within about 10 seconds. Pin lit up with the news and his mates rushed up to congratulate him. The small boy was crowded out and I nudged the well-wishers to one side so that the boy could snuggle up to Sopin. The boy was in tears. How many times had he lost the people he’d learned to trust? Now he was losing again.
I’m told that another chidren’s welfare NGO has good plans to look after the boy, but in the midst of what was proving to be an enjoyable visit the look on the small boy’s face was haunting.
Savong soon returned and signed some papers and, well, that was it. Pin was free to go. Savong headed back to his car while I helped Pin carry some of his meagre possessions from the dormitory block where, now that visiting time was up, the prisoners had returned. They were now behind bars, hanging onto these and watching Pin’s exit.
What a mighty feeling that was. As Pin walked the hundred meters back to the guard’s gate the other prisoners stood and gave him a ‘kar teahdai’ which is Khmer for a round of applause. Pin’s chest swelled and he strode in the same way astronauts in the movies stride when they’ve come back to earth – the slow motion walk of heroes. It was a pleasure to share that moment, though I bit my lip at the same time. This was just the beginning for Pin, once more, and I wondered how he’d cope this time, now he was out again. But what got me most was the face of the small boy in blue. He was standing at the barred window and applauding like the others. But when I turned to see him he momentarily stopped applauding and wiped away tears.
PS. A week or two later I learned that Pin has gone back, as a visitor, to check that the little boy is okay. I hope they stay in contact.
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