Keo Chkriya was pregnant when she was sentenced to prison, on charges of drug distribution. By the time she left, she had been caring for her son in a cell for nearly two years.
“My child stayed with me until I was released,” she told VOA Khmer in a recent interview. “I was afraid he would catch a disease staying there with me.”
They lived cramped in a cell with many other women, with little to eat, in an environment ill-suited for children.
“We had to eat bad food,” she said. “The rice was sometimes not well cooked, or over cooked, and they made us the same food over and over.” Fellow prisoners would use abusive language, or yell at the children. “Sometimes we waited for too long for the gate to be opened for us to get out of the cell,” Keo Chkriya said. “The children were hot and crying, because they wanted to get outside the cell.”
Until her release, Keo Chakriya was among more than 20 women raising children in 18 prisons across the country. Those are the prisons monitored by the rights group Licadho, though there are a total 27 prisons in the country, likely with other mothers and children in them. Inside, children face malnutrition and exposure to tuberculosis, influenza and other maladies, living in small cells and waiting for their mothers to be released.
These are children like Dara, highlighted in a recent report on children in prison, issued by Licdaho. Dara stayed in prison with his mother in Kandal province until he was too old to be kept there—just four years old. He was abused by his mother in prison and is still unable to speak.
“Dara’s mother openly admitted that she regularly beat him and that this abuse did not stop until he left prison,” Licadho said in a statement. “Despite physical signs of abuse, authorities did not act until Dara was one year old at which point the guards reportedly beat his mother in response.”
“Dara’s experiences demonstrate the appalling failure of Cambodian authorities to take appropriate actions when a child is at risk,” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said in a statement. “The authorities must stop sidestepping their responsibilities towards children in prisons.”
“Prison authorities have to closely monitor children in prison and establish special safeguards to respond to their needs and security,” Licadho Prison Supervisor Nou Sam An said in a statement. “Interventions that simply perpetuate the cycle of violence are wholly inappropriate, counter-productive and harmful.”
About half of the children in prison have never known another life, Licadho says.
Licadho issued its report last month. Last week, for International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the Ministry of Justice to release 22 women who were pregnant or had children in prison. The move follows a tradition where prisoners are released for Khmer New Year and other national holidays, but was a first for Women’s Day.
Kim Santepheap, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said more releases of women are being considered for the upcoming New Year.
Still, rights workers say more needs to be done at a policy level. Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for Licadho, said the government should consider keeping mothers out of prison—with punishments like community service, instead.