Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

International Red Cross donates supplies for overcrowded prisons

Roman Paramonov, the Cambodia mission head for the International Committee of the Red Cross, attends a ceremony to donate supplies to prevent Covid 19 at Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison on Friday. Khy Sovuthy

The Cambodia mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Friday donated 20 tons of essential health care, hygiene and sanitation goods to the directorate general of prisons (DGP) to help stop a Covid-19 outbreak.

At a morning ceremony at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, Roman Paramonov, the ICRC’s head of mission in Cambodia, said the ongoing coronavirus pandemic was a humanitarian concern for everyone around the world but threatened, in particular, those deprived of freedoms and forced to live in close quarters. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a tremendous impact all around the world,” Paramonov said. “While social distancing and washing hands might be feasible in normal circumstances, these measures could be considered a luxury in prisons. Their implementation poses an extra challenge, especially in facilities that are overcrowded, have poor hygiene or lack ventilation.”

“Our priority at the moment is to support the DGP in all their efforts to protect more than 38,000 detainees and 4,000 prison staff, to control the spread of this virus in prisons and to be able to handle any potential cases properly,” he said.

Paramonov added the ICRC had also been working with the government to figure out effective strategies to stem the spread of coronavirus in prisons.

Cambodia has a notoriously overcrowded prisons system, with most of the jails in the country above official capacity. Amid the coronavirus crisis, the U.N. recently called for governments to take action to protect the health of prison inmates.

DGP director-general Chan Kimseng told the ceremony his general directorate thanks the ICRC for its donations and technical support and said that all prisons around the country had been instructed to keep coronavirus outside their walls.

“When there were any suspected cases of the virus, [prison staff] must report to the expert hospital immediately,” Kimseng said, before explaining that visitors and inmates were required to wear masks and wash hands before meeting.

He also said as of March 20, prisons were only permitting visitors to visit inmates to deliver news of the death of a direct family such as a parent, child or spouse. In place of physical visits, inmates were being given greater access to telephone meetings with their family members, providing they had credit to pay for it.

Cambodia’s prisons have 38,000 inmates in total, Kimseng said, with more than 8,000 in the Correctional Center 1 (CC1) at the Prey Sar prison alone, making efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19 difficult. He said most prisoners only had a bit more than one meter of space each to sleep at night given overcrowding.

Yet he said the prisons were doing what they could to try to fight the virus.

“For example, if there are new inmates sent to be detained in the prison, they will be quarantined for 14 days for health monitoring,” Kimseng said, adding that if an inmate was found to have coronavirus, those around them were also checked.

“We sent about five cases to give a blood sample for a test for Covid-19, but all of them tested negative for Covid-19,” he said of one recent example.

However, he declined to answer questions about what percentage of inmates he expected to test positive for the virus inside Cambodia’s prisons system, deferring questions to experts in his department who he said were working directly on the issue.

Ny Sokha, head of monitoring at local rights group Adhoc, said that he thought the government might consider spraying disinfectant inside prisons, too, as well as other measures given how closely Cambodia’s inmates were living.

He said he was worried the government was not doing enough to take into account the crisis in prisons caused by years of overcrowding. 

“The government should take into consideration the crowding of inmates in prison, and they should be paying extra attention to this issue,” he said.

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