Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

After infections found in Preah Sihanouk facility, national Prison Department to test all Cambodian inmates for COVID-19

Inmates leave a crowded prison van on their way to a hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, March 31, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Inmates leave a crowded prison van on their way to a hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, March 31, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

All prisoners across Cambodia will be tested for COVID-19 after 34 inmates tested positive for the virus Saturday at Preah Sihanouk provincial prison.

Nuth Savna, spokesman for the General Department of Prisons said on Tuesday that samples have been taken for testing from the more than 1,800 inmates total at the prison in Preah Sihanouk. This testing push is the first to be conducted as part of a campaign by the department, an office of the Interior Ministry, to conduct COVID-19 testing for all of the nearly 39,000 inmates now being held across the country.

Savna didn’t say when that campaign would take place but added that, for now, prison officials are working with Preah Sihanouk provincial authorities to contain the virus at the facility there.

“We took measures immediately by isolating them for treatment in the prison,” Savna said of the prisoners who had tested positive for the virus, adding that they appeared to be in normal health.

Kheang Phearom, Preah Sihanouk provincial spokesman, said his administration did not cover the prison and referred questions to the Prison Department. Mey Doeun, director of prison itself, did not comment on Tuesday.

Officials are now awaiting the result of tests from the other inmates and staff at the prison.

“We are not clear 100 percent but I think that they [were infected] from new inmates. In the past, we did not have a rapid test but we just carried out a quarantine for 14 days,” Savna said of new intakes to the facility.

The spokesman said the tendency of the virus to cause no symptoms in some patients presented a challenge to prevent it without proper testing.

Savna said the group of infected inmates also include some foreign nationals, including one case found in a pre-flight screening for deportation, but didn’t say how many.

The Prison Department has requested that arrestees be tested for COVID-19 before being sent to court or prison. For now, Savna said, entrance for prison officials to the Preah Sihanouk facility is limited only to necessary reasons. Those employees who either live in red zones or are otherwise believed to have come in contact with COVID-19 will not be allowed to enter the facility.

Savna similar prison outbreaks of the virus have also occurred in countries such as Thailand, Germany and France.

“For Cambodia, it is just breaking through [now] because we are very careful,” he said.

In a letter published at the beginning of this year, the UN special rapporteurs for human rights had called for the Cambodian government to test all inmates at prisons that had been visited in November by Chhem Savuth, the general director of the Prison Department, after he later tested positive for COVID-19.

“As a matter of urgency, we request [the] government to prioritize mandatory COVID-19 testing for all detainees,” the letter stated.

That mass-testing didn’t happen. On Tuesday, the UN OHCHR stated additional concern about the COVID-19 infections detected in Preah Sihanouk, saying overcrowded prisons make difficult conditions in which to fight a viral outbreak.

“In addition to sanitary and quarantine measures,  one of the key measures – adopted by countries across the world in the context of the pandemic –  is to prioritise the use of alternatives to detention and release prisoners, in particular pre-trial detainees, especially when they are held for low-level and non-violent crimes, as well as vulnerable detainees,” the rights office stated.

“We are pleased to hear that the Preah Sihanouk Court of First Instance has started to take action in this regard, which should be urgently replicated across the country. “It is also positive that vaccination in prisons has started and the task has been completed in the prisons in Phnom Penh.”

Cambodian human rights groups had similar concerns and recommendations.

Sreng Vanly, a coordinator of the national rights group Licadho in Preah Sihanouk province, said he’d heard of measures to isolate the inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 other inmates. However, he said both his organization and families of inmates held at the Preah Sihanouk facility are still concerned about the safety of those imprisoned there.

“I think that if the government can, they should reduce sentences on some inmates held on minor crimes to allow them release on bail,” Vanly said. Those who have served two-thirds of their sentence could be considered for early release to reduce crowding, he added.

Ny Sokha, head of monitoring section at human right group Adhoc, said it will take a unified effort between prisons and government offices to prevent serious outbreaks in the penitentiary system.

“I think that testing is important, but we must consider whether we should test anyone suspected or if we must test all inmates,” Mr Sokha said. “The Prison Department will have to cooperate with the Ministry of Health to address this issue.”

For now, though the Prison Department has announced its intent for mass-testing, on Tuesday prison officials across the country told CamboJA they had not yet heard anything about what that campaign will look like.

Chab Sineang, director of Kandal Provincial Prison said he has not yet received orders from the Prison Department about testing inmates.

“If they do, it’s great,” he said.

Phean Chhorvan, director of the provincial prison of Siem Reap, is also waiting on instructions from the Prison Department.

“In terms of risk, it is a risk and obviously there is a problem in Sihanoukville, so other prisons are also concerned,” Chhorvan said.

He said that his prison holds about 2,700 inmates, most of whom were jailed for drug crimes. The facility’s staff are following instructions from the Ministry of Health to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, including temperature checks and the use of alcohol sanitizers and, as far as Chhorvan knew, all other prisons are doing the same.

“I requested the provincial health department for rapid tests and tomorrow or in the next few days, we will receive it,” Chhorvan said, adding that he’ll wait to receive orders from the Prison Department before proceeding with testing.

On Tuesday alone, the Ministry of Health reported 480 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total in Cambodia to 20,223 since the pandemic began in 2020. As of now, the ministry has recorded 8,170 cases recovered and 131 people who have died of the illness.

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