Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 2

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

I am handcuffed to the back of a police pickup truck on a wooden bench. I have no idea where Prey Sar prison is located, but I am told the journey is around 40 minutes. After three days of police and court nonsense, the court has managed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt, that the system is total bollocks.

I am now to be held on pre-trial detention, while my case is to be investigated. In truth, I have no idea what is going on. The British embassy did bring me a list of local lawyers and a paperback book. The list of lawyers may be quite helpful if I wanted to open a soup restaurant or a hostess bar, but for criminal case, it is a worthless box ticking document. The paperback book is slightly less useless, but I have now read it three times.

We drive across the city from the central police station, near the Intercontinental, along streets 271and 721, past what was, three days earlier, my home and out towards the killing fields. The city falls away to the familiar Khmer countryside, palm trees, fields of rice and a potholed gravel road, lined with discarded plastic bags.

We arrive at the prison compound, the 5m walls are topped with broken bottles and razor wire, guard towers spaced at regular intervals, each with a single guard and an AK47. The truck stops outside a massive green metal gate, a smaller door opens to the main guardhouse and the visitors area. I am taken inside the guardhouse and my police escorts leave.

With the instincts of a magpie, one of the guards searches my trouser pockets, where an hour earlier, I had placed $80 handed to me by my girlfriend. I am briefly left to my own devices while the guards aggressively discuss the redistribution of my recently received wealth. Only after the excitement, and the money, passes does a guard return to ask for my name and the details of my case.

I am taken through the guardhouse and the visitors area, which is a group of concrete tables, the type designed to look like noddy trees, in a quiet, well maintained garden. It is lunchtime, everything is silent, there is no sign of other prisoners. On through another green metal door set in another 5m high wall, the scene changes dramatically.

It is a large site, at least one square kilometre – a wasteland with some buildings – but no people. I am escorted left, to the prison “hospital”, I am met by a medical professional who’s eyes are pointing in alarmingly different directions, he simultaneously measures my weight and height before I am escorted away.

There is still no sign of other prisoners as we approach one of three cell blocks, a massive two story concrete box for keeping people, measuring around 100m x 30m. I hear the first signs of other life, the combined hum of 1000 voices shouting, banging and drumming. I have arrived at block A, which is the remand or pre-trial block. As the door is opened, I feel a wave of heat, noise and the stench of shit and rotting garbage.

I am taken into one of 48 cells, this one containing 24 prisoners in a space of 5m x 4m, which includes a hole in the floor bathroom, with a small water tank half full of brown water. There are no locks and doors as prisoners are allowed out to exercise or work. I am taken to meet the block chief, this time I have the help of an American Khmer translator, named Tank, one of many incompetent fixers who are generally best avoided – but I am new blood.

I am offered the one-time opportunity to move to a so called VIP cell, where for a convenient monthly fee, the number of prisoners will be limited to only 16 and I will be allowed to have an electric fan and sometimes electricity. I wonder how I got to be so lucky and accept the upgrade as if I had just been bumped from cattle to business class. I concede to the fact that, within hours, I am now $50 in debt for the move and $30 more for my first VIP monthly payment.

On the plus side, however, my new cell is less crowded, cleaner and an arrangement of electric fans helps keep the hot air moving. The bathroom is the same, a little less filthy but it also has the same brown water tank. I am allocated a sleeping space on the floor, between the bathroom and the cell door, which means that whenever the door is open, I must pack away my bedding and move. I will spend my first sleepless night, shoulder to shoulder with prisoners either side and four hammocks suspended inches above me.

Another prisoner explains that bottled water must be purchased for showering, cooking and laundry the cost is 1,000r for 18ltr. The standard blue 20ltr drinking water must also be purchased for 5,000r. Water will cost around $30 per month, ten times my household bill, I calculate that the prison water business is worth $90k per month, or $1.08m per year – a sole water company has the contract. We are locked down at 4:00pm, some prisoners secrete mobile phones while others crack out the ice. A portable DVD player is showing back to back porn, featuring an alarmingly high proportion of animals.

The porn, drug and gambling marathon continues through the night while I read my embassy paperback, again. I finally manage fall to sleep around 3:00am only to wake at 5:00am to the early morning noise and the awful reality of where I am. This starts with a strange pumping sound, a kind of sucking, followed by a splash, it’s not the porn, I hear the same noise coming from other cells, through the plumbing.

I can now see in the early morning light, a young guy drawing brown water through a homemade hand pump for the toilet tank. There is not enough water for every cell, so this early morning milk race is essential to prevent the problem of unflushed toilets later in the day. I start my second day, tired and not only broke, but in debt.

Normally, prisoners are not permitted visitors during the first month, however, for a small $40 charge, it would be possible for my girlfriend to meet me briefly with food and much needed funds. We spend an hour together, before we are given the option to extend the visit for another small fee. I decline. My girlfriend will return later in the week with more supplies, but for now, she has to find a new home for herself.

I set off for my cell, only to discover yet another scam, between the visiting area and block A, there are six gates or doors. Each is staffed by guards wanting to check any supplies, which were already checked at the front gate. The choice is simple, pay 2,000 to every guard, or they take some of your food. Another $3, the scam reminds me of watching traffic police extorting truck drivers at every intersection – over time, it mounts up.

The prison provides two meals per day, these arrive in large aluminium buckets, one of nasty rice, often burned and another with nasty soup of the day. Normally nasty pork fat, otherwise nasty fish head – it all stinks. I learn the rice is deliberately over produced, more than half goes uneaten. This isn’t careless public sector waste, it is carefully planned public sector waste. Guards have prisoners dry the uneaten rice on mats in the sun, to be sold on to pig farmers as feed. All money going to prison officers, the benefit for prisoners? Flies. Millions of flies.

I later learn that there is also a similar pig and fish scam. The prison orders a certain amount of pork or fish every day, rather than steal the meat, there is an agreement with the supplier to short deliver. For example, 300kg of pork may be ordered and signed for, but only 200kg delivered. The missing 100kg is paid for by the department of prisons and the supplier and the prison guards can split the cash – around $400k per annum. Along with theft in the kitchen, finding a prime pork nugget in your bucket, is far less likely than finding prisoners taking their pick of three taxi girls waiting in the cell – but that is, a story for another time.

The sad result of malnutrition and days locked in overcrowded cells is a sickness which I am told is called beri-beri, or something. Affected prisoners cannot walk unaided, more able bodied detainees help the sick to walk in large circles in the grounds, literally lending a shoulder to lean on.

The first western prisoner I meet is Mark, he is a friendly, intelligent Australian (yes they found one and locked him up), he appears at the hatch in my cell door with a can of Fanta, demanding that I be allowed my exercise. In just 60 seconds, I learned more four letter words than I knew existed – but it got me out of my cell for some exercise.

Mark, was arrested two months before myself. He was charged with buying sex from his wife, who was currently missing, along with their baby and the baby sitter. All three were snatched by a well-known NGO with Hollywood connections and were now detained in a secret NGO detention center or shelter – depending on whether your perspective is as a donor or a hostage.

This NGO was subsequently exposed for lying to donors – several times. His Khmer mother in law was now frantically trying to trace the location of her daughter, however nobody, not even the police, knew where they were being held. It seems that the new anti-human trafficking law allows a certain latitude for kidnapping and illegal detention.

Eventually, much later, the girls were released from NGO captivity after months of imprisonment, having been subjected to a number of intrusive physical examinations, as well as being coerced by NGO staff. Years later, they are now all free and living, once again as a family.

I sit with Mark on a curb stone, which is in the shade of the building. He introduces me to a number of other foreign prisoners and I start to realise that my lawyer hasn’t been entirely honest with me, over time, I will get to hear each of their stories and how, guilty or innocent, the system has taken everything along with their freedom.

I learn also the purpose of block A, which is to apply maximum stress, in order to extort the most money, before the courts can. Cells are searched at least three times every week, personal belongings ransacked and thrown around the cell. Anything can be taken and sold back to you – even money is against the rules, Khmer prisoners often trusting foreigners with their cash or the guards will take it.

It has now been several weeks since I arrived at Prey Sar, I have not seen my absent minded and absent bodied lawyer – who not only failed to arrive on the first and all subsequent Mondays but neglected to inform me that pre-trial detention can last up to 18 months and that during this period, nothing will be investigated.

After hearing number of negative reviews of my current lawyer, mostly regarding high fees, theft and an absence of communication, I reluctantly decide to meet a second lawyer, who is recommended to me by a friendly Malaysian named Robert, who’s crime was running a business importing casino equipment but he had failed to pay the vip and was now in prison. The lawyer is a mature lady, who’s gold teeth seem to be causing some kind of speech impediment, she bubbles and fizzes (at the mouth) as she talks – I find this strangely disturbing. However, she seems friendly and keen to represent me.

The case file includes a number of photographs submitted by a fruity NGO from which the initial statements and conflicting stories were based. None of the photos are date or time stamped, inadmissible in the real world, however, one of the alleged victims stated that the time was 17:00 hours, just before the alleged crime. Or crimes. Or just before nothing happened (depending on which statement you read). I had previously hired a professional photographer to re-create the same scene, at 12:00 midday and again at 17:00hours. My instinct was right, shadows in the fruity NGO photos prove that the time was in fact between 12:00 and 13:00, not at 17:00 as stated.

At this time, I was self-employed, working UK time – 13:00 to 22:00 Cambodia time, computer records and documents, in the post from England, would prove this. My new lawyer helpfully informed me that this is an alibi.

To be continued.