Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 6

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.

It’s been a week since my arrival at the brothpital, just enough time to get an idea of the routine and in between tricks, I have spent this week getting to know my new neighbours.

Cambodia’s very first terrorist is a friendly and witty Bangladeshi named Bob. The right side of his body is affected by a previous stroke but he maintains his pride and sense of humour. Today his wife has brought a terrorisingly good curry for us all to share and after serving, mid-meal she casually mentions that she has had to sell their baby, in order to pay the requested $500 prison medical costs. The awkward silence is broken as I crunch another excellent poppadom.

Clearly Bobs case is a big misunderstanding. While going about his normal business of buying and selling old watches, he somehow got confused with a group plotting to blow up a number of embassies – well, who hasn’t? The thing is, I really think he is just a nice old man. Yes, he prays five times a day, and he certainly knows his curries – but surely a terrorist would be a bit more aggressive? Then there is the evidence; bombs? No. Encrypted jihad emails? No. Guns? No. Just old watches.

After a week, I finally decide that his case is purely political and that Cambodia is now elevated to the list of those top nations which have been targeted by international terrorist organisations; it is therefore now a real country. Hopefully, this will mean membership to some ineffective organisation, an annual dinner and dance, plus, of course, more NGO funding.

The neighbour to my right is a quiet, blind Vietnamese man who’s physical condition has deteriorated so much during imprisonment, that as well as his sight, he has also lost most of the use of his arms and legs. Sleeping on the floor, he is constantly bitten by bugs and mosquitoes and has taken to itching these with a razor blade. As a result, he is covered in bites and cuts.

He speaks only a few words that I can understand; coffee, cigarette and Dung – which is his name. I imagine his situation as a kind of torture; he is in darkness, on the floor in a room full of foreign voices and Khmer karaoke.
The sister of my girlfriend takes the kind initiative of cleaning his bedding, possibly for the first time in months, emptying his piss bottle and his bottle of dog-ends. Every day, I make sure he gets some coffee and cigarettes, and despite the torture, I see this once handsome man offer a friendly smile.

The doctor arrives for his daily rounds, which is a standard 5 minute show, to convince somebody, somewhere, that this is a hospital, he is a doctor and therefore deserves a salary. I am not convinced. In the hour before, a young, epileptic prisoner has taken everybody’s blood pressure and in between his own seizures, recorded the results in a small school notebook with a picture of a cucumber on the front.

The doctor pretends to read the results as he hooks up an IV bottle containing a fluorescent yellow liquid, which is either radioactive waste or the blind man’s piss bottle. Next, he administers a daily “vitamin injection”, into the bare arses of the younger Khmer patients. This puzzles me as I try to work out if; a – he is a pervert, b – a sadist, c – he is conducting secret drug tests or d – he has some huge stock pile of old military or NGO drugs.

Finally, he hands out some Paracetamol tablets and leaves after 4minutes 20 seconds – his best time this week.

The men’s ward is separated from the woman’s by a corridor which also lead to the communal showers and toilets. One of the odd benefits of this is that the women often visit with their new-born babies. Personally I find the sight of over-swollen glands and the smell of milky vomit quite disturbing, however the young mums carrying their miniature motorbike thieves, together seem to bring a ray of sunshine into the ward.

The oldest guy in the ward is a Chinese man who is aged around 90, he lights up at the sight of the young visitors and performs a wobbly jig pulling a face which brings welcome laughter all around.

It is genuinely appalling that children can still be born into punishment and imprisonment but these young mothers do what they can to provide for their kids and the guys in our ward offer all the support they can.

One of the young mothers is believed to be a fortune teller, who clearly failed to predict or avoid her own incarceration, while pregnant. She is now reading my girlfriends palm and speaking in tongues.
My girlfriend listens intently, looks at the baby, the swollen breasts and then at me – I get the trafficked feeling that she is about to spend another $20on a quiet night in.

And this is about the limits of the “brothpital” routine, by day a respectable medical facility, a doctor, glow in the dark medicines and family friendly visiting hours – by night, a sleazy, alcohol fuelled knocking shop.
Prisoners are not permitted to exercise outside as there is no security beyond the corridor. Despite the benefits; the cost of food, transport and conjugal visits (the payments for my own trafficking) are well above my now limited budget.

After a month and having made the vig, I weigh the pros and cons of the brothpital and then request a move back to Prey Sar in the hope that the Don will cancel the contract and restore my VIP privileges.

On the return journey to Prey Sar, I start to wonder if I have made the right decision, but this time, I am not handcuffed and there is only one guard armed with an AK47 – rather than five. I sense that the Don is pleased with my earnings as a prostitute and that I have been accepted back into his VIP family.

I arrive back at Prey Sar and I am admitted to the on-site prison hospital, which is a collection of six filthy, infested wards with a slightly different class of sick and wealthy prisoners. The toilets are blocked with human waste and the water tanks empty but a friendly Taiwanese man named Meng finds me a bed between a TB patient and another guy with a serious pornography addiction. But the big difference for me is that once more, I can get outside into the prison gardens. It appears that the hit has been called off.

After a month of being a prostitute, at an offsite prison hospital, now dubbed the “brothpital”, I have returned to the squalor of the Prey Sar prison hospital. The cell is around 6m square, with 18 rusty metal beds which look like they were stolen from the set of M*A*S*H. There are three main problems with the sleeping arrangements; first, 28 prisoners share the 18 beds and its only after the first night listening to my neighbour coughing his lungs up, that I am told he has ebola.

The second problem is that the beds are too short for your average big nosed white man. The metal beds have a tubular steel head and foot frame. As a result, you cannot lay flat or straighten your legs, which is very uncomfortable. And third, there is no bedding. Just a base of rusty metal slats which serve the dual purpose of allowing the easy drainage of vomit and other bodily excreta, while providing an ideal environment – and easy access to flesh – for swarms of mosquitos.

The bathroom consists of two squat toilets with a small brick tank of swamp water for flushing, which is carried in daily from a ditch in the hospital grounds. There is no electric light and no sunlight reaches the bathroom – as a result, it is filthy and rarely cleaned. Once again, I will have to pay for clean water for showering, drinking, cooking etc. This amounts to my biggest single expense of $35 a month. Together with a charge of $15 for using an electric fan, around half of my now very limited budget is spent paying for my prison stay.

My hospital cell mates are another mixed bunch of super-contagious coughers, spitters and vomiters, plus mid-level VIPs who have paid the $500 change for a “comfortable” hospital bed – the alternative being the bare concrete floor in the block. For the $500 charge, those who have declared themselves more important are allowed the privilege of being let out for exercise before the sick people, who are generally considered an unsightly nuisance and who are just getting in the way of further business.

This discrimination results in frequent bundles and fights at the doors, the authorities have respond by appointing a group of Khmer prisoners as doormen, giving licence to use violence against any non-paying sick person.

My immediate neighbours include the ebola patient zero on one side and yet another victim of the much more serious Prey Sar pornography addiction syndrome. His treatment includes a 14inch TV and a DVD player, which he somehow manages to fit in his bed.

To be continued.