Covid-19 is a “Ticking Time Bomb” for Cambodia’s Overcrowded Prisons
Wed, April 21, 2021

Covid-19 is a “Ticking Time Bomb” for Cambodia’s Overcrowded Prisons


Three years ago, prisons in the country had a capacity of 15,000 inmates but have now reached 38,000 prisoners. / Photo by kittirat roekburi via Shutterstock


Nongovernmental organization Amnesty International recently shared a video that shows extreme overcrowding in a Cambodia prison amid the escalating Covid-19 cases in the country.

Extreme overcrowding in Cambodia prisons

The video shows about 25 prisoners lying on the floor of a small cell with barely enough space to move. The global movement comprising more than 7 million people who take injustice personally calls the situation a “ticking time bomb” for a Covid-19 outbreak. It encourages the Cambodian authorities to take immediate action to address the overcrowding crisis.

Cambodia Interior Ministry’s department of prisons spokesperson Nouth Savna said via television channel Al Jazeera that he did not see the video yet but acknowledged the extreme overcrowding situation in prisons. “I’m not going to deny it,” he said. The spokesperson added that it is only a “temporary problem” as the country is already working to address the problem by building new prison facilities.

The said issues were also more systematic. For instance, a slow judiciary contributed to the overcrowding situation in prisons. Three years ago, prisons in the country had a capacity of 15,000 inmates but have now reached 38,000 prisoners. Amnesty International said that the footage shows the “inhuman conditions” in Cambodia prisons.


A mockery of physical distancing

Amnesty International’s director in the office of the secretary-general David Griffiths also said in a press release that the deplorable conditions in prisons are a mockery of physical distancing required of people to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. It also shows how authorities are neglecting the basic rights of these inmates even amid a pandemic. These kinds of conditions are not acceptable and are “completely unconscionable,” Griffiths added.

Cambodian authorities should give all detainees access to appropriate healthcare during the pandemic without discrimination, he said.

International nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson also pointed out that the footage is only the “tip of the iceberg” of the “out of control” crowding in Cambodia prisons.

Savna went on to say that the Cambodian authorities have already taken several measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 in prisons, such as the use of automatic spray sanitizer in their entrance, suspending visits, regular cleaning of the facilities using chloride, and increasing detergents and soaps. Separate rooms were also used to quarantine new prisoners for 14 days. Inside these rooms are individual beds placed at three to five meters distance.

The department of prisons spokesperson himself said that although there is no reported case of Covid-19 in the prisons yet, every day is still like a ticking time bomb. They don’t have the luxury yet of testing all the prisoners because it costs a lot of money. That budget should be saved for emergency purposes.



Licadho Naly Pilorge, director of national Cambodian human rights nongovernmental organization Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), said that the government needs to prioritize trial hearings and bail of those charged with nonviolent offenses to help reduce the spread of the virus. This can particularly apply to pregnant women or women imprisoned with young children and infants and the juvenile detainees, detainees with physical or mental disabilities, and the elderly.


Use of pre-trial detention

The human rights special rapporteur of the United Nations has also urged the country to use pre-trial detention only when “necessary.” Penal Reform International, an organization working globally to promote the criminal justice system,stated that about 30% of the prison population in the world is comprised of pre-trial detainees. This means that these people are not yet convicted of a crime and are held because they cannot afford to pay the bail fee or they lack other alternatives. The organization said that many of those accused of criminal law know little of their rights and many countries lack adequate legal aid systems.


Pre-trial detainees in Asia

Asian countries with the highest pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners based on the total prison population are Bangladesh (81.3%), Philippines (75.1%), Cambodia (71.9%), India (69.4%), Laos (67.0%), Pakistan (62.1%), Sri Lanka (60.2%), Nepal (58.9%), South Korea (35.9%), and Mongolia (34.4%). Taiwan, Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Uzbekistan, and Japan had the lowest number of pre-trial detainees in Asia. This data was provided by, an online database providing free access to information on prison systems worldwide.



Major health crisis awaits in Asian prisons

Based on the occupancy level, prisons in Cambodia house double their capacity (206.1% occupancy level). The Philippines ranks first (463.6%), which means that it houses prisoners four times its capacity. Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton said in a statement that “a major crisis is brewing in Asia’s overcrowded prisons and jails.”

Since the prisons are potential Covid-19 epicenters, Human Rights Watch has urged the Cambodian government to reduce overcrowding by releasing vulnerable and low-risk prisoners. The health consequences will affect not only prisoners but also the prison staff and the public as a whole. The Human Rights Watch specifically mentions those pretrial detainees for minor offenses and political prisoners. The organization that defends human rights worldwide highlighted that the country should take urgent measures to ensure that prisoners receive adequate medical care.

As of January 2020, 18 out of 28 civilian prisons in Cambodia housed 23,748 detainees. This includes 1,614 women and 43 of them are pregnant. The correctional facilities also heled 103 children incarcerated with their mothers and 542 other kids. A total of 619 women, including 4 girls, were convicted prisoners. The country’s General Department of Prisons has already announced a temporary suspension of visiting rights on march 25 except those who have medical certificates and are undergoing temperature checks as they enter the prison facilities.


Countries with the highest rates of prison over-occupancy should take appropriate measures to reduce the prison population and isolate those who are sick. / Photo by LightField Studios via Shutterstock


Prison chiefs in Cambodia were also instructed by the department to observe the quarantine period for all new detainees before they are allowed contact with other inmates. No further details, however, were provided about the arrangements and procedures.

Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 2, the sole prison in the country that houses children and women, has a capacity to house 350 inmates but there were 1,850 prisoners held there as of January 2020. The death of a 5-month-old baby in the CC2 late in January highlighted the need to have alternatives to detention for women with children.

Countries with the highest rates of prison over-occupancy should take appropriate measures to reduce the prison population and isolate those who are sick.