Some Realistic Steps to Address Corruption in Cambodia’s Prisons

Prisons are perfect environments for corrupt activity (see here and here), even in countries that are generally not corrupt. A captive, marginalized, and powerless population is at the mercy of an armed, empowered group for everything from safety to basic food and water supplies. In Cambodia, a deeply corrupt country to begin with, prison corruption impacts every aspect of incarcerated life. Prison conditions are abysmal; water and food are scarce and are often unsafe to consume; prisons are severely overcrowded; and prisoners are subject to beatings and sexual abuse by other prisoners and guards. The Cambodian NGO Licadho found that “[t]here is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable [in prison], from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.” Even release from prison at the end of a sentence can be contingent on paying bribes.

These conditions constitute clear, and awful, violations of the human rights of prisoners. Cambodian prison corruption also threatens to undermine Cambodia’s already shaky justice system: As long as prisons are seen as institutions of corruption, torture, and injustice, as opposed to centers of rehabilitation, they will never escape the image left behind by the Khmer Rouge.

There aren’t a lot of feasible solutions, however. Both financial resources and political will to address prison corruption are very limited. Major reforms that would address fundamental problems, such as the lack of an independent judiciary, are hard and expensive, and the current government is not open to them. Nevertheless, there are a range of more modest reforms, which are both less expensive and more politically feasible, that could reduce corruption in prisons and improve the situation of many prisoners. Consider three such low-hanging fruit:

  1. Revise the code of ethics for prison guards.

Cambodia does have a code of ethics for prison guards. This code explicitly prohibits “using working hours to make a living privately,” demanding any “money or item” from prisoners, and using influence and power to “obtain any interest.” Obviously, this code is not implemented with regard to corruption in prison. As far as I can tell, it’s also not implemented with regard to the majority of the other provisions. Prison guards routinely use drugs without punishment, discipline prisoners without approval, use prison labor for private gain, and allow prisoners to escape, all in violation of the code of conduct. Prison guards are also routinely expected to virtually live at the prisons, sometimes working two days at a time or being expected to always be on duty, also in violation of the code of conduct’s hour provisions. While it’s difficult to find research about compliance with other elements of the code, including the weapon and uniform provisions, overall the code of conduct does not come close to describing the reality of life for prison guards.

Having a prison code of conduct that is, at the moment, completely aspirational is not very helpful, even if it looks like it guarantees useful protections. The code should be rewritten to reflect actual expectations for how prisons treat guards in terms of job conditions, working hours, and responsibilities towards prisoners. Many of the anticorruption provisions in a new code of conduct would remain the same, but could be reframed to seem more workable. For example, the admonition that guards may not keep any item confiscated from a visitor could be reframed to say that guards must return items confiscated from visitors at the end of their visit, showing a clear expectation for what happens to those items.

A reworked and realistic code of conduct could be useful in prison guard training, prison administration, and in outreach to prison guards by NGOs and legal advocates. Moreover, by making the code of ethics a realistic and useful tool, the anticorruption provisions of the code come into the realm of feasibility as well. If the whole code of ethics is a joke, those provisions get written off with the rest of the code. If the code of ethics is part of day-to-day life and reflects that reality, the anticorruption provisions become more reasonable by association.

  1. Set a default position of not imprisoning pre-trial defendants.

Pre-trial defendants are especially vulnerable to mistreatment in prisons and to demands for bribes. In Cambodia, although the law says that pre-trial detention should only be used when necessary, judges almost always sentence defendants to be detained – unless they can bribe their way out. As a result, as of 2014, fully 63% of Cambodia’s adult prison population was composed of pre-trial detainees—one of the highest rates of pre-trial detention in the world.

Ending the automatic use of pre-trial detention would reduce the severe overcrowding in Cambodian prisons, thereby increasing the availability of resources and reducing the necessity of bribes to get access to over-strained resources like space or clean water. It would protect those whose cases will be dismissed or never go to trial from the corrupt prison system. Since pre-trial detainees would no longer have to bribe their way into a court date, it may reduce the rate of convictions (especially convictions in absentia). Cambodia’s pre-trial detention problem is expensive for the government, and it has been the subject of international criticism. Since the government does care about its international reputation, this is one area where the government has incentive to improve.

The Cambodian government did take some steps to attempt to reduce pre-trial detention in 2014. However, statistics from World Prison Brief show that the number of pre-trial detainees has continued to rise. Cambodia should enforce its own criminal procedure rule and eliminate pre-trial detention as an option for people being tried for misdemeanors with punishments of less than one year, and should follow through on its promises to reduce pre-trial detention by setting up a system that monitors whether judges are using the new forms designed to avoid pre-trial detention and providing strong reasoning for the necessity of pre-trial detention in each case where it is ordered. Judges who improperly order pre-trial detention should be fined by the Ministry of Justice, which already has the power to discipline judges. If even a few judges were fined, it would show judges that the government is serious about reducing pre-trial detention, and it would mean that accepting bribes would not be as lucrative. Even if the government continued to use pre-trial detention as a tool against human rights advocates, preventing pre-trial detention for those who are accused of non-political crimes would greatly reduce the prison population and the amount of corruption.

  1. Amend the criminal procedure code to allow family members to make motions on behalf of imprisoned persons.

Under current circumstances, prisoners may have to bribe prison officials to allow them to file the appeal (which can cost up to $400, an often insurmountable barrier), bribe prison officials to transport them to court, and then subsequently bribe the court. One possible solution to take out some of these bribes would be to guarantee transportation, but any attempt to provide transportation to prisoners seems vulnerable to the same corruption that inhibits access to water, exercise, and utilities. Therefore, the first step is to increase access to the court itself.

Article 446 of the Cambodian criminal procedure code establishes that the “spouse, parents, [and] children” of an incarcerated person may file a motion for review “if the convicted person has died or disappeared.” Article 375 similarly provides that an appeal can be filed “by the guilty person” or a lawyer, but not by family, except in the case of minors, who may be represented by their parents. These articles are problematic because they severely limit the access to courts by incarcerated people. While lawyers may act on behalf of prisoners, only the wealthiest have the resources to pay lawyers, and legal aid is so overstretched that it is virtually non-existent.

Cambodian criminal procedure should be amended so that a designated family member can act as an agent and file appeals on behalf of an imprisoned relative (so long as the latter consents). While families may still have to bribe the courts, this would at least reduce the number of bribes required. Moreover, protecting people from unwarranted detention is good even if the corruption gains are minimal. This will not result in a flood of appeals, because it is still very expensive for most Cambodians to go to court.

It’s difficult to make progress on anticorruption reform in a country as deeply corrupt as Cambodia. But progress is not impossible. Even small steps, like rewriting an obsolete prison code or fining a few judges for violating pre-trial detention policy, can result in significant reductions of corruption in individual lives.

4 thoughts on “Some Realistic Steps to Address Corruption in Cambodia’s Prisons

  1. The findings on the state of prisons aligned with our similar research in Central African Republic this summer. If interested see here:

    However I would argue that the proposed solutions are too simple in nature (using the Cynefin Framework understanding of simple). They require someone to enforce them, which in a context of vertical or horizontal integration of corruption is not likely. Some of these steps may be necessary but I doubt they would be sufficient. Greater exploration of how corruption is complex (rather than simple as the proposed solutions) may be helpful. As a place to start see here:

  2. Susannah,
    Nice piece, and I really like your creative suggestions on how to combat corruption in Cambodia’s prisons. One element I’d love to explore further is how to make these proposed reforms have some actual bite to them. For instance, a code of ethics sounds like a positive change, but you write that prison guards are already violating their code of conduct. Why would amending the code (even if to make it more realistic) mean that it won’t again be disregarded? Similarly, on your pre-trial detention point, it seems that the default is already against pre-trial detention (if judges should use it only when necessary). If this were a policy with some force behind it, judges would have to listen and bribes in this area would decline. Certainly this is easier said than done, but perhaps the solution lays in determining why the people with authority in the prison system continue to disregard existing policies, fostering a system based on bribery and corruption.

  3. Hi Susannah,
    Thank you for this very interesting overview of the many things that need to change in order to combat corruption in Cambodian prisons. I am particularly interested in your points about enforcing the code of ethics for guards. I wonder if linking enforcement of the anti-bribery provisions to overall enforcement of the code, including parts that provide protections for guards against excessive work hours, would be an effective way to increase buy-in among guards. In general, it seems like better wages and working conditions for guards would be another key way to reduce their need to rely on bribes from prisoners.

  4. This is an interesting topic that presents difficult answers. I think your solutions are also quite interesting. As some of the replies have noted, individually, the solutions may not have a significant effect on the problem. To me, it would make sense to use your suggestions in a tiered approach. I believe this tier would start with your final suggestion and end with your first. The tier would also narrow and shift its focus from the broad issue of corruption to the single, albeit large, issue of overcrowding. This is not to say such a tiered approach is the solution to overcrowding but rather, in my opinion, is a useful way to use your three suggestions.

    It would make sense to focus on your last suggestion first because it is the most likely to have an immediate impact. If anyone is likely to take advantage of one of these suggestions it would be family members attempting to help their loved ones get out of prison. Again, as you stated, such a system may not eliminate corruption and could even cause more corruption in some circumstances. Nonetheless, if the goal of this policy is to reduce overcrowding it may be more easily implemented because, on its face, that is exactly what the policy aims to do.

    Second, ending the automatic use of pre-trial detention would certainly reduce overcrowding. However, this is already the policy in place and is not being followed. If, as you suggested, there were greater fines imposed on judges abusing such a policy than this may encourage them to follow it. This would, of course, require the Ministry of Justice to enforce such fines, however. Narrowing the focus of cases the Ministry of Justice would need to review could increase the likeliness of fines being placed. If for example, the Ministry picked a certain type of charge for which they would strictly impose fines for abuse of pre-trial detention, then this may accomplish your goal of fining at least a few judges to create a ripple effect of deterrence.

    Finally, reforming the code itself may not reduce overcrowding but if it is the final tier then the hope would be that some of the overcrowding has been alleviated. Consequently, the guards may not have as many issues with violence and could work fewer hours. With less stressful jobs a reformed code that makes violations and punishments clear, is more likely to be followed thereby improving prison conditions even further. Better conditions also minimizes the need for prisoners to bribe guards and for guards to seek bribes. Also, with a less populated prison, the government may be able to afford to increase the guard’s wages and improve their training. In turn, this would reduce their need to collect bribes even further.

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