Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Prison Department begins vaccinations for all Cambodian prisoners

A health care worker draws a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during the ongoing vaccination campaign in Phnom Penh, April 1, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A health care worker draws a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during the ongoing vaccination campaign in Phnom Penh, April 1, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

State officials have begun a campaign to vaccinate all of Cambodia’s nearly 39,000 prisoners against COVID-19 after 34 inmates tested positive for the virus last weekend in the Preah Sihanouk provincial prison.

Nuth Savna, spokesman for the General Department of Prisons, said Thursday that vaccinations will be delivered with help from the Ministry of Health to prisons according to their estimated risk level.

“Tomorrow [Friday] we will continue to vaccinate more than 1,700 inmates in Preah Sihanouk provincial prison,” Savna said, adding that more than 10,000 inmates in Prey Sar Prison’s CC1 and CC2 units, as well as additional inmates held at Phnom Penh municipality’s PJ Prison, were already vaccinated last week.

 “After, it could be vaccinations in Kandal province,” he said.

The Prison Department is also working with the UN and International Red Cross to test all of the country’s prisoners, though Savna said officials are still in the process of acquiring a sufficient number of rapid test kits. These had previously been unavailable due to high need across Cambodia.

The other inmates at the Preah Sihanouk prison were also tested after the positive cases were detected May 8. A group of 146 female detainees, some of whom are imprisoned with small children, were evacuated to Kampot provincial prison.

Savna said the elderly and minor-aged detainees at Preah Sihanouk were taken to the facility’s emptied detention building for women. More than 100 prisoners who had almost completely served their sentence were released with permission from the provincial court to reduce crowding.

Mey Doeun, director of the Preah Sihanouk provincial prison, did not comment and sent the request to the Prison Department.

On Tuesday, Savna said he believed the virus was introduced among new inmates, explaining intakes had not been tested for COVID-19 but had instead been quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. The group of infected inmates also includes some foreign nationals, including one case found in a pre-flight screening for deportation.

The Health Ministry and Defence Ministry reported on May 11 that 1.87 million people across Cambodia have been inoculated so far with their first dose of vaccine. More than 1.23 million people have been fully vaccinated with two doses of serum.

On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported 446 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total in Cambodia to 21,141 since the pandemic began in 2020. As of now, the ministry has recorded 9,519 cases recovered and 142 people who have died of the illness.

Be Tea Leng, the Prison Department’s deputy general director, confirmed health officials had given the first dose of vaccine to all but 200 of the 10,400 inmates in CC1, CC2 and PJ Prison. Tea Leng said the remaining, unvaccinated inmates were either minors or sick and could not be vaccinated. Prisoners will receive the second dose of vaccine on May 28. Tea Leng said officials have tested any inmates suspected of exposure to the virus or showing symptoms of infection.

Chhim Thida, director of PJ Prison said only 16 of the 1,260 inmates there were unable to receive a vaccine in a two-day inoculation program that started May 7.

“They are happy when they received the vaccine because they also want to survive,” said Thida, explaining the prisoners at PJ are mostly in on charges related to drug crimes, fraud and stealing,

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the human rights group Licadho, said his organization was still concerned about overcrowding in the prisons, though he pointed to the measures taken at the Preah Sihanouk provincial facility as measures to relieve congestion of inmates.

“Even so, we are still concerned about this issue because inmates still are crowded,” Sam Ath said. “So this is a problem that demands that we be very careful and find other measures to prevent and protect against COVID-19 infection, especially for testing all inmates.”

Sam Ath said the courts should consider releasing on bail any suspects imprisoned on minor crimes, as well as speeding up the processing of criminal cases to relieve crowded conditions.