Risk of Covid-19 Outbreak in Prisons at ‘Emergency’ Levels

3 min read
A courtroom equipped with transparent screen as Covid-19 precautions, in a photo posted to Justice Ministry official Kim Santepheap’s Facebook page on April 16, 2021.
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More than 30 inmates at the Preah Sihanouk provincial prison have tested positive for Covid-19, and the country’s prisons department says it is facing an emergency and is at risk of a serious outbreak.

Loch Touch, the wife of Kao Hour, who is detained at the provincial prison over a land dispute, said a prison official had called her to say that there was a positive case in her husband’s room. She was very worried about her husband’s health, Touch said.

“My husband has no one to rely on. He does not know who to rely on. His children and grandchildren cry when they are sleeping together at night after they heard about corona [in his cell],” Touch said.

She called for her husband’s release, saying he has been unjustly imprisoned for 10 months even though he suffered from dementia. He could die of Covid-19 as he is 60 years old and has serious chronic illnesses, she said.

Lonh Kong, 25, said her mother Eng Van, 58, had also been in prison for 10 months for alleged violence at a land dispute. Kong said she had not received any information yet about her mother.

“I call on everyone inside the prison to help prevent the transmission from one to another. Because I’m afraid she could get infected inside too,” Kong said.

The Preah Sihanouk provincial administration disclosed that 35 prisoners had tested positive in a statement on Saturday.

Nuth Savna, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry’s general department of prisons, said on Monday that all access to the Preah Sihanouk prison was cut off as officials investigated both the source and spread of the disease.

“This is a time of emergency, in which all of us in every post need to pay high attention to the work,” Savna said. “Even the officers who have a right to travel from one place to another, now [we] need to restrict their traveling rights, limit their mobility.”

So far there were only 38 direct contacts identified, and they would be isolated, he said. The 35 positive cases so far were also being kept inside and treated there, though any severe cases would be sent to hospital. However, there was not enough room to keep indirect contacts away from other prisoners, he said.

Savna nevertheless brushed aside a question on the well-known overcrowding of prisons.

“I’m bored. I’m tired of explaining the matter of how to keep a gap in prisons. The prison is made to jail corrupt people and maximize as many as possible. [If] everyone in prison has too much rights to sleep comfortably, [we] are dead,” he said.

New detainees are tested and quarantined for 14 days and prison officials must report all travel before entering prisons. As an emergency measure, the country’s prisons are pushing vaccinations, and 10,000 inmates at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison were given a Covid-19 shot last week, Savna said.

Cheap Sotheary, provincial coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, said relatives had not been allowed to visit inmates since the “February 20” outbreak, and health measures appeared to be strict.

“Administrative officers are allowed to go home and come back, but some officers stay inside and are not allowed to get out,” Sotheary said. “They are very careful, and the prison chief is staying only there. He hasn’t gone anywhere. We don’t know how it got in.”

Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for another human rights NGO, Licadho, said the Preah Sihanouk cases were a lesson for prison managers across the country to be vigilant and find ways to reduce overcrowding, which exacerbates the risk of infection.

“Our civil society organization has urged all prisons and related [parties], especially those related to the court, that if any criminal cases are minor offenses, they should be allowed [out] on bail, allowed temporarily out of jail, to reduce overcrowding and high risk in prisons,” Sam Ath said.

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