Sitting outside her small home on a low, wooden bed, 32-year-old Cheng Davi looks at her son, Sothea.
She’s glad that Sothea survived their ordeal in prison, but the 2-year-old boy isn’t doing so well these days.
“He has a skin disease, so he is itchy all the time,” Davi said. “And very often he’s getting sick with a high fever.”
Davi gave birth to Sothea while she was locked up in a Cambodian prison. When she asked whether the boy could be taken care of by his grandmother, the authorities told her that it’s the rule that infants stay with their mothers if the birth occurs while the inmate is locked up.
It’s a policy that has been criticized by human rights defenders for years, who have argued that prisons are not a safe and healthy environment for infants.
In January, the long-standing problem took a dramatic turn when a 5-month old baby died in the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh.
The baby was incarcerated with his mother, who ended up in pre-trial detention after being caught in possession of methamphetamine worth a mere $2.50. She was 8-months pregnant when she was sent to prison.
Human rights group Licadho said that an autopsy showed that the baby had died from pneumonia and severe malnutrition.
Licadho also said that the child had a fractured thighbone and that earlier, medical staff at the National Children’s Hospital had brushed off the mother’s appeals for help, telling her they had run out of the medicine previously prescribed to the child.
Speaking to the Cambodian newspaper Khmer Times, Nouth Savna, the spokesman for the General Department of Prisons, said that the death of the baby will be investigated. Savna also claimed that prison officials were not to be blamed.
“Prison officials took good care of the baby — they were not involved in her death,” the spokesman was quoted as saying.
Davi finds it hard to believe that prison officials took good care of the dead infant. In her experience, conditions inside the prison were bad.
“There was not enough food, and because there was no clean water, my child got sick very often,” she told LiCAS.news.
There was also a serious lack of medicine and medical equipment behind bars, Davi said.
“Only when children get very sick do they receive some treatment,” she said. “Most times they just give you paracetamol.”
If she needed more to take care of her child, Davi had no other option than to bribe one of the guards.
“Then I would have the chance to call my mom and to ask her to please bring some medicine for my boy.”
Am Sam Ath, the deputy director of monitoring at Licadho, criticizes the detention of young children.
He said that food packages for pregnant prisoners, as well as for mothers who are detained with their young ones, are limited.
“There are some NGO’s who provide food and nutrition to support the female prisoners and their children, but even then it’s not enough.”
Sam Ath also said that pregnant prisoners don’t get the medical attention they need.
“People outside the prison can make their appointments for a medical check-up, but because of slow processes, women inside the prison sometimes don’t get a health check-up or regular treatment.”
To solve the problem, the Cambodian government should implement a better system to prevent young, innocent children from being locked up, Ros Sopheap, the executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, an NGO that advocates for gender equality and women’s rights, told LiCAS.news.
Ros said that when a suspect is pregnant, authorities should delay trial until after she has given birth.
“With the lack of facilities inside the prison, I’m really concerned about the mental health of the children, but also of the mothers,” Ros said.
According to Licadho, in mid-February 103 children and 43 pregnant women were detained in the 18 Cambodian prisons it is monitoring.
The human rights group also said that four years ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a committee to provide amnesties to pregnant women and mothers imprisoned with their children.
But instead of alleviating the problem, the number of prisoners in Cambodia has grown rapidly since 2017.
Most of these new detainees were caught up in a controversial crackdown on drugs. Inspired by the war on drugs in the Philippines, Cambodia has arrested and imprisoned thousands of people.
Many of the arrestees are poor Cambodians who suffer from a heroin or methamphetamine addiction. The possession of drugs worth just a few dollars can be enough to be put them behind bars on drug dealing charges.
That also happened to Davi, who didn’t know she was pregnant at the time of her arrest.
“I only had a very small amount of drugs with me. Every day I had to wake up early, so I used it to give me more energy,” Davi said. “But they charged me for dealing and sent me to prison for two years. Six months after my arrest my son was born.”
Arrests like these are unfair, Ros Sopheap said.
“The government only targets the users, while they very well know the main people behind the drug problem,” she said. “I’ve talked a lot about this, but I haven’t seen any action to improve this. I only see that they arrest the poor people who are convicted of dealing.”
In the end Davi spent 1.5 year in prison with her son.
The unnamed mother whose baby died while incarcerated was recently released from prison.
But for many others, the ordeal is far from over.
What makes matters worse are the new visit restrictions to deal with the outbreak of the new coronavirus, according to Licadho’s Am Sam Ath.
“This means that families can’t visit the prisoners anymore to bring them food, so there will be a bigger shortage of food,” he said.
“And I doubt they will separate old and new prisoners from each other. If a new prisoner has COVID-19, it’s very possible that the virus will spread easily in the prison.”
*For safety reasons the name of the prisoner and her son have been changed