Life in Phnom Penh’s Prey Say prison (again)

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 2.35.33 PM

Prey Sar, from Google Earth. Main entrance is the small orange rectangle at the bottom-centre

I’ve previously blogged about Phnom Penh’s jail, Prey Sar, here (posts on Khmer440 from one of the prisoners) and here (a “prison diary” previously published in the magazine Bayon Pearnik some years ago).

I’ve now discovered a third first-hand account of life inside, and it’s the best of all – it’s illustrated. It appeared as a blog in July 2011 and ran for only a five posts, between July 27 and July 31. Posting was done by smartphone. I have no idea why it stopped appearing, but perhaps the blogger’s cellmates told him he was putting them all at risk – the guards can be very sensitive about these things.


First post: Arrives, forced to change to prison uniform (it was blue then, now it’s orange). Double walls topped with barbed wire – and he’s surprised by how pretty it is inside, with gardens and pathways. But this isn’t the actual prison, just the approach to cell block A, where those yet to be sentenced are held. As he walks down the path with its border of gardens and lawns the noise increases, all coming from a few dark barred windows. “[T]housands of voices shouting from within the dark holes of the beautiful facades of the buildings.”

He enters block A. The noise is horrendous. Guard opens a cell door and pushes him in. He glimpses a crowd of faces, like an overstuffed elevator, all looking. He says … well, what do you say? He says “Hello!”


At this point let me make an editorial comment. Prison populations are made up of the bad, the mad, and the sad. That’s not my phrase, it comes from a famous writer who is also a prison doctor. That man also said that the mad and the sad vastly outnumber the bad. Is it so in Cambodia? I don’t know. But our bloggist is lucky, he found a friend, someone he’d known on the outside. This friend is his protector, his patron. They even share the same T-shirt. Don’t laugh, you’d be surprised how important a T-shirt can be in Prey Sar. And so ends Day 1.

And these are some of the photos he took. I feel a little uneasy putting them up as I might be invading someone’s privacy, I don’t know, but privacy doesn’t seem to be a thing you get much of in Prey Sar.


Life in jail, Cambodian style

Watchtower at Prey Sar

Watchtower at Prey Sar

On Khmer440, that gift that keeps on giving, we have a poster currently serving a term inside Prey Sar, Phnom Penh’s unlovely jail. An inside source. (I do love a good pun).

Some background: Prey Sar (“White Forest”) opened for business in 2000, replacing an older jail dating from colonial times called T3 (meaning prison number 3, T being the initial for the Vietnamese word for jail – T1 in Vientiane, T2 in Saigon, T3 in Phnom Penh). If you folks out at Prey Sar think that’s bad, be grateful, be very grateful, that T3 has closed.

So anyway, our man in the forest came online and was promptly disbelieved – nobody is supposed to have access to the Internet at Prey Sar, said the scoffers. True, they’re not. Signals are jammed.

[T]he whole area is heavily jammed. First test they did was a joke. Their first generation of jammers where sending waves that were bouncing on the walls and we could still easily get a signal by moving patiently a modem around until finding a good spot. They installed new jammers a while ago and it got much worst. Close to impossible to get a 3G signal. But still, some days the signal goes through : strength of jamming seems to be highly irregular like anything in Cambodia.


No connection to the poster, just a random photo from the Internet. The blue uniform is out of date – current ones are orange.

What really interests me is his description of life behind the walls. Prey Sar was built to accommodate a few hundred prisoners and now has four thousand. Problems with water, food, and money. And he mentions, without being asked, the Nigerians:

Loads of Nigerians here. Advice to the black population reading me : get out of the country or you’ll end up here. The basic cambodian have no more respect for the proles farmers than for the blacks. Basic dumb racism. They arrest one drug user or dealer and put all his friends and family in jail even if they did nothing wrong. The prison was built for a few hundred prisoners and we are close to 4k now. Living in 40×175 cm at best. Non stop noise, dirtiness like you can’t even imagine it. Insect the size of thumb dead in the “soup”. Dirty rice served in stinky buckets filled with a shovel, etc, etc. Paradise on earth I tell you.

But still, I’m here for 9 years and things got better. We have very little water, but clean. Electric power for 5 to 20 $ depending on the bloc chiefs (prison is a huge dirty business and after stealing your house, your land, your bank account, your freedom, etc. they suck you dry every month of everything your family or wife can send to help you, literally : survive. And believe me, it’s not easy.

The Nigerians are in for drugs. Westerners are in mostly for sex crimes I guess, though some are rather unexpected – one for bag-snatching. They say that in Western jails a quarter of the prisoners are sociopaths.
The poster says he’s a Khmer who travelled abroad – from a good family, apparently. For a given value of “good”, of course. I have no idea what he’s in for, and I suspect it’s the sort of question you don’t ask. I sort of hope he’ll find this blog and give us a comment…
Also read Save A Life: Foreign – but what about the Cambodians?

Phnom Penh Prison Diary

5-Prison-Prey-SarAs the author of a crime novel set partly in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, I was extremely interested to stumble across this 2014 article in Bayon Pearnik magazine. It’s in 12 parts, of which I can only find the first 8 online, which is a pity as it means I don’t know how the story ends, but I gather it all happened in 2011/2012 (and maybe took even more time) and that the author is now out.

Very briefly, he was accused on child sex charges (falsely he says, and I believe him given the evidence, or rather the lack of it), and put through the wringer. Some highlights:

The Cambodian police have a 100% clear-up rate on crimes, and the Cambodian court system has a 100% conviction rate. To make that clear: the police always somebody, for every crime, and it always turns out to be the right person. Always.

imagesPrey Sar prison is the purest possible expression of capitalism. Everything costs. Take water. A company has the contract to deliver bottled water, for which the prisoners pay whatever the guards demand. Sometimes it rains. A kind NGO noticed this and installed rainwater tanks. The guards padlocked the tanks and sold the rainwater. (Mains water was connected since the author’s stay and prisoners are supposed to have access to a litre a day, but I’m sceptical).

Prey Sar has a rigid class system, based on wealth. Pay $500 and you get upgraded to the VIP wing, where there are only 25 men to a cell. Above that are two further classes of VIP, which cost even more. Tops is the Monivong prison hospital (which is not on Monivong Boulevard – its’ too difficult to explain), where young ladies of dubious morals are available for hire.

  • Don’t get into debt in Prey Sar. It’s very easy to get into debt. Don’t.
  • Don’t bother with a lawyer. Not unless you want to buy a remission on your sentence, or an amnesty – but those cost, and are slow to arrive, and you’ll grow thin while waiting. Lawyers, by contrast, are sleek and well-fed.
  • Don’t tangle with the child protection NGOs. They’re never wrong, even when their evidence is something out of Monty Python.

Here are the links to the 8 out of 12 parts that I could find online:

Part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5; part 6; part 7; part 8.