A gurgling baby boy clings to the collar of his mother’s state-issued orange jumpsuit. He has her nose, and her wide brown eyes.
Unfazed, Chan Sophea scoops the 8-month-old in the crook of her arm and presses him to her breast. This is Sophea’s fourth child, but her first born in prison.
Sophea, at 27, was among the first of thousands of Cambodians ensnared in the government’s ongoing “war on drugs” – a crackdown that has led, among other problems, to a dramatic rise in the number of pregnant women and toddlers behind bars.
The sharp uptick followed a set of pardons for incarcerated pregnant women and women with young children in early 2015. At the time, Prime Minister Hun Sen himself called for amnesties in the wake of a report from rights group Licadho highlighting the problems facing incarcerated new mothers, and heralded the first step on a path to ensuring children did not have to grow up behind bars.
After those pardons, just 30 infants and toddlers were behind bars for the remainder of 2015, according to Licadho statistics from 13 prisons across the country. In 2017, following the anti-narcotics campaign, a total of 179 children were in prison – an almost six-fold increase.
That trend looks set to continue, with 149 young children and their mothers behind bars so far in the first three months of 2018.
Sophea, sitting in a room with female guards within arm’s reach, says she was arrested in January last year – right at the beginning of the government’s zealous drug sweep. By her account, police raided a home in Boeung Kak. The drugs weren’t hers, she claims – she just happened to be there and was rounded up. She was convicted of carrying less than 1.5 grams of ice and sentenced to five years in jail.
She found herself crammed into Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Correctional Centre 2 (CC2) with hundreds of other women.
“At first I didn’t know I was pregnant,” she said. “It was a surprise … I realised my belly was getting bigger.”
“People said being pregnant in prison was going to be very difficult. I was very worried about it.”
Sophea didn’t have enough food to sate her cravings. Most of all, she longed for watermelon. She would often eke out extra servings of watery rice from her fellow inmates, because they had money to afford other food.
Her youngest had the highest birth weight of her four children, but the labour nearly killed her.
“My life was threatened because of giving birth to him … I needed oxygen, I was very weak,” she says.
“He is very big and because I did not really have enough regular food, I had no strength or power to deliver.”
Pressing his hand to her mouth and kissing it, Sophea frets over her young son’s development.
“He takes too long to learn how to stand,” she says. “I am very fearful because children born here do not know how to talk.
“My other kids, they have more freedom, they have enough food to eat.”
The Post interviewed 10 inmates in Cambodia’s largest women’s prison in a room monitored by female guards, while toddlers clambered on plastic furniture and made faces in the mirror.
Many of the women thought they were arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Sophea, or felt they were being unduly punished for possessing a small quantity of methamphetamine.
“My friend stabbed me in the back,” said Chhay Srey Khouch, 27.
Her friend allegedly asked her to carry a one-gram packet of ice, which she did. Srey Khouch was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. She gave birth after six months inside.
But on a recent visit she is glowing. In a husky voice, she explains she is due to leave the prison the next day.
“I am very happy now I can leave,” she says. “It was not comfortable, but no one hurt or abused me.”
Now she just wants to take good care of her son, to keep him healthy and strong.
In Cambodia, children born to incarcerated mothers can remain with them in the prison until they turn 3.
Lach Socheat, 35, holds her wriggling child, who wears a small horse pendant around his neck.
Socheat is the only woman interviewed not jailed for drugs, but for human trafficking. She was sentenced to 15 years behind bars, and was one week pregnant when – about to board a flight to Malaysia – she was arrested by police.
“After I delivered him, I still bled for a month,” she said.
Her son is 2 years old, and next year he will have to leave her side. “I’m very worried, because I do not know where my son will be and who will take care of him … I really pity him. But what can I do?
As of April 9, CC2 housed 10 pregnant women and 61 children. Back in 2015, it was closer to five pregnant women and 10 children, according to prison chief Hang Samang.
“It’s really such a big burden for the prison, but also for the women as well,” he said. It is also just one of many strains on the facility, whose population is now triple its capacity of 500. “Now, we have 1,590. So how burdened are we, can you imagine?”
Samang would welcome bail as an alternative to pre-trial detention, he said, but that was a matter for the courts.
“Lawyers should file a request for bail. If she could be outside, it’s good for her and my centre. But it all depends on the court,” he said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin maintained pre-trial detention was considered a “last resort”, despite the fact that it is routinely used for even the most minor infractions. He also denied the women had ineffective legal representation, as they claimed in interviews, making it impossible for them to get bail.
“They can be kept outside if it does not affect the investigation or society,” he said.
Samang also baulked at the idea of new pardons, suggesting they incentivise crime, and that pregnant women may actually take advantage of their situations.
“When they get pregnant, they go to commit crime. They believe people do not come close to hit or fight them with an arrest,” he said.
There’s not much in the way of services for mothers and their children at CC2.
Just 2,800 riel – or 70 cents – is allocated per person daily to cover their costs, Samang said, with half that amount spent for a child. For pregnant women and women with children, some additional food and sanitation supplies are provided from NGOs like Licadho and the International Red Cross in Cambodia.
Food, drinking water, medical services, legal representation and sanitary items are “extremely scarce” in most prisons, said Licadho’s Naly Pilorge, and bribes are demanded for a variety of services, such as extra food or better sleeping arrangements. The NGO would like to see cases involving pregnant women prioritised in the court system.
“The Cambodian government needs to give the next generation of women and children access to relevant social services, not lock them up,” she said in a message.
“We are appealing for use of bail and other alternatives to pre-trial detention for non violent crimes.”
Sophea’s fears of developmental delay are shared by other inmates, and by Maggie Eno, co-director of M’lop Tapang, an organisation working with young people in conflict with the law in Sihanoukville.
“From our perspective there are huge concerns that not growing up in a normal family will have an impact in the early development of babies,” she said, citing issues of nutrition and hygiene. “Serious overcrowding doesn’t allow the mother to have a safe and intimate place with her child.”
A “lack of warmth” and the absence of other family around them in their first years “can have a psychological impact too”, Eno said.
Prisons Department spokesman Nuth Savna was also concerned for the psychological health of babies born into prisons – though he claimed the birthplace was never written on birth certificates in order to prevent future discrimination.
“When they know their mothers are in the prison … it is very common for people to mock them,” he said. “This will definitely hurt them mentally … mostly they don’t tell the kids.”
While there are indeed safety concerns with such young children in a prison environment, there are glimpses of camaraderie among the inmates and their children. One mother wipes the mouth of another’s child with a cloth. Another preoccupies a baby girl while her mother speaks.
CC2’s deputy executive director, Kloat Kanika, also appears to have a good rapport with the women under her care.
“I feel pity for them because they are poor, they earn a living like that [in the drug trade], and they have no education,” she said. “I also feel sorry for the kids, but what can you do? If there are no relatives and you arrest the mum, where should the child go?”
Though the children are not provided with as much food as they may be outside, they can begin to get an education and go to child care when they learn to walk, she said.
Savna defended the prison conditions as “not that desperate”. “We understand that being in the prison is mentally tough on them, so with their children close by, they could feel better,” he said. “But in my mind I don’t want to see them in that situation. If the families could help bring children back home to raise them while the mothers are in prison, they could feel at ease.”
That is the rare case for Keo Nay, who, at just 18 with her pixie cut and baby bump, says she is on the cusp of giving birth to a son, expected over Khmer New Year. By now, her child is likely in the hands of his grandmother, and Nay back in her cell.
“I love baby boys, I’m so happy,” she says. “My mother will take my son to raise him on the outside, because this is her first and only grandson.”
Nay was arrested at the end of November last year, in what she describes as a set-up. Her ex-boyfriend, who is not the father of her child, asked her if she knew someone who could push drugs. She was a user, but never dealt, and said she would call her brother.
Her ex turned out to be a police agent, and Nay and her brother were swiftly arrested. She was five months pregnant at the time.
Giving up her firstborn may be hard to bear, but the teenager thinks it’s what’s best for him.
“Raising him here is going to be difficult,” she says. “I do not know how to take care of a baby. I just want to survive.”