While Cambodia’s teenage prisoners face a hard time in jail, organisations are working to raise the bar for their futures. Writer Joanna Mayhew finds out what it takes to make a transition to life outside, with photography by Rudi Towiro. Some names have been changed.

Sokha* supports a large rusted and broken television with his left tattooed arm, and peers at its electronic insides. The circuit board and a mess of wires spill out of the back and across a worn wooden table scatteredwith scissors and electrical tape.

With his other hand, the 21-year-old carefully flips the electricity on and off and nudges one of the wires with a worn screwdriver. Next to him, his boss points to the pieces and speaks softly, reminding him of the steps involved in fixing the screen.

In the modest, tin-roofed electronic repair shop, Sokha resembles any young Cambodian apprentice. He works full days, lives at home, hangs out with his girlfriend and follows the football scores. But his routine could not be in greater contrast to his life just two months ago. Each part is a luxury he now savours after spending four years in prison.

Sokha looks too young to have spent so many years behind bars. He smiles shyly as he sits down to tell his story, but his large eyes appear burdened and a nearby funeral unwittingly provides a soundtrack of mournful songs.

At age 17, Sokha was arrested for a crime which he maintains he never committed, after becoming part of a group with a history of theft and drugs. He was accused of breaking into a home and, with no previous convictions, put behind bars. It was only after being given his sentence that reality started to sink in. He says, “I just got stuck. I couldn’t think straight.”

Sokha’s story is common  among the prison population, which currently has 322  convicts aged between 14 and 18, according to human rights organisation Licadho.

Without a separate juvenile justice system, young people are tried alongside the 14,671 adults who have been imprisoned. Of youths currently in jail, Licadho says only 24 percent have been convicted, with the remaining majority awaiting trial or final judgment. Life in Cambodia’s prisons is typically characterised by cramped quarters, limited time out of cells, disease, in-fighting, sanitation issues, malnutrition and corruption, Licadho claims.

“It’s not specific to Cambodia, but if you’re a kid in prison, you’re quite likely to reoffend”

Prisoners can face abuse from guards as well as fellow inmates, according to the organisation’s 2014 Torture and Ill-Treatment report, written in response to more than 500 documented allegations of torture or ill-treatment since 2008. “If you’re one of the poorest, one of the weakest, you’re much more likely to be subjected to such treatment, [especially] if you’re young,” says Sharon Critoph, prison consultant for Licadho.

“There’s certainly a pecking order. [Young people] are more vulnerable to abuse,” adds Rachel Watkins, programme development officer for This Life Cambodia, an NGO working with young offenders. “That leads to other challenges in regards to access to food, healthcare. They’re always at the bottom of the pile.”

However, Phay Siphan, Council of Ministers’ spokesman, says the Cambodian government is working hard to improve both the justice system and standards at prison facilities, as well as curb abuse of prisoners.

Outnumbered, youngsters are among the most vulnerable prisoners. They can be highly influenced by their surroundings, particularly psychologically. “Just the pure idea of being incarcerated and the impacts it can have on them long term, it’s vast,” says Watkins.

Monophal*, now 21, entered prison at age 16 for stealing and remained there for almost five years. He was terrified when police stormed his family’s house one night and as a result was held for three days before being sent to six months of pre-trial detention.

Once incarcerated, he shared a small room with 25 others, where he constantly worried about food, as there was not enough to go around. Upon release, he claims he was pale with swollen limbs.

As Monophal relives his stay, his eyes brim with tears and his small hands fidget. Often stuck in an overcrowded cell, he was at times left sick from the lack of fresh air and sunlight. “I felt very depressed. It was very difficult to live,” he says. “But I had no choice.”

Young people in prison are typically from poor backgrounds or have lived on the streets, used drugs, or stolen to make ends meet, say experts at Friends International, an NGO targeting at-risk children. “Many of them haven’t been living within the conventional realms of society for a long time,” adds Charlotte Arno, the NGO’s programme advisor.

They can get “stuck” in the system, emerging with limited opportunities, often becoming caught up in the cycle of crime, meaning reoffending is a common problem, Arno explains.

“You’re getting criminalised,” adds Critoph. “It’s not specific to Cambodia, but if you’re a kid in prison, you’re quite likely to reoffend.”

New Beginnings
Addressing the cycle of reoffending is the aim of several organisations. This is being achieved through pioneering programmes aimed at both keeping teenagers out of prison and, for those who remain behind bars, maintaining their connections to the outside world and preparing them to successfully re-enter it.

In Siem Reap, Friends works with police stations to establish systems where children who are picked up for minor crimes — or for living on the streets — are passed into its care instead of sent to prison. Whether crimes are considered minor is determined on an individual basis by police, but include stealing, fighting, drug use and vandalism.

Referred youths are placed into temporary homes, education programmes, vocational training centres or reintegrated into their families. However, they can leave any of the services offered of their own accord at any time.

“Some would say we have a responsibility to keep kids until they are on the right track. But they’re not going from one prison to the other; they have to want to be there,” says Arno.

In 2013, police referred 76 youths, up from 38 the previous year. It is unclear whether this means more teenagers are committing crimes or that the programme is working. “The goal is to have fewer youth imprisoned, and to work with the authorities on sustainable solutions,” Arno comments.

Chhom Somban, commune police chief for Kok Chork in Siem Reap, has worked with Friends on the programme since 2009. Sitting behind a large desk with rifles lining a nearby wall, he explains that participating police are trained on child rights and the benefits of providing youngsters with opportunities away from a life of crime.

Previously based in the criminal unit, he says children would often be arrested and held in cells before being sent directly to court or jail. “I didn’t know what to do with them,” he says. But the programme has changed his approach. “Now I realise we can’t compare children with adults. Children should be sent to NGOs to provide a better service than sending them to jail. We don’t want more children [in] court.”

Getting to Work
For those in prison, time is often marked by isolation and boredom while they miss out on education and job training.

Monophal describes boredom as the most trying aspect of his sentence, until a much-needed antidote came in the form of a life skills course.

“If you’ve been in prison, you start at the lowest point if you’re accepted back to the community”

Along with non-formal education, Friends also offers weekly life skills sessions in prison featuring videos and discussions on issues relevant to young prisoners, such as hygiene, drug use, sexual health, stress and anger management, and child abuse and how to report it.

Five years ago, Monophal was arrested for stealing a phone with friends. From a poor town where rice farming is the main livelihood, he says he went along with the crime “without thinking carefully” because, as teenagers seeking entertainment, they wanted money to go to karaoke.

After participating in the course, Monophal says he is now able to better assess situations. “Before I take a step, I need to think about what the risk is. Now I analyse a lot.”

And to provide future employment options for convicts, This Life Cambodia offers vocational training in motor mechanics and electronics to 20 students yearly in each of the two prisons they work in.

Students are selected based on sentence length and financial need, and also receive teaching on running a business. So far, 37 students have completed these courses, held in tin-roofed sheds on the prisons’ outskirts.

“I thought prison was a waste of my time; I wasn’t doing anything,” says Sokha, who started attending the electronic repair course last year. “But after [joining] the class, I was happy to spend time learning a skill I can make a living from.”

Navigating young people’s release from prison and return to normal life is one of the most challenging aspects of supporting juvenile convicts. On release, many face discrimination and severed relationships.

“If you’ve been in prison, you start at the lowest point if you’re accepted back to the community,” says Anne Scharrenbroich, prison project consultant for Licadho.

This Life Cambodia tries to curb this by covering travel expenses for relatives to visit juveniles monthly in prison. This has been a hit, with 95 percent of relatives, who would otherwise not be able to afford it, snapping up the opportunity.

“It’s a huge benefit to young people,” says Watkins. “If [they] know they will be welcomed back into their community without additional discrimination, it really drives them to want to prove themselves.”

Monophal says visits from his mother and sister threw him a lifeline while he struggled with life inside. “They gave me encouragement, and told me I need to be patient. They said four years is actually short, and that I would be released soon.”

Both Friends and This Life Cambodia facilitate reunions between estranged relatives through counselling, and provide education in their communities to build understanding. “[We want to] make them more accepting and understand it doesn’t mean you’re a bad kid forever because you messed up one time,” says Arno.

Before release, young offenders are helped with short- and long-term plans, covering everything from who will pick them up from prison to employment. They are also given financial funding to start their own small businesses and offered accommodation and additional vocational training once they leave.

Post-release, both groups follow up with ex-prisoners to ensure they are coping with their new lives on the outside. This Life Cambodia also follows the reoffending rate of their participants. To date, none of their graduates have reoffended, but the organisation acknowledges that as numbers grow this will become harder to track.

The Road Ahead
Teenagers currently in prison remain bound to the fragile judicial system, which continues to be defined by challenges and halting progress.

But as the Cambodian government continues to work to improve the system, prisons and treatment of prisoners are constantly improving Siphan claims.

“We educate them to treat everybody fairly. We hope [this will] improve the quality of the people living there,” he says. “The correction house is not to punish people. [We] prepare them to integrate into society as good people; we bring up the virtue and the quality of life.”

This year, the government also passed the long-awaited juvenile justice law after more than a decade of drafting. It covers issues from alternative sentencing and diversionary measures to treatment of juveniles.

Its passage is “very significant,” says Licado prison consultant Critoph, but the organisation raised concerns that it does not adequately address young female prisoners (currently 14), and warns that the law should be implemented with speed.

The apparent success of youth-focused programmes is also promising.

Monophal just passed his one-year anniversary of release. After spending the initial months receiving additional vocational training, he now runs his own motor repair business, saving $200 monthly.

He shares his experiences in prison with children in his community to warn them against the same fate. “I’m very happy with my life at the moment, it’s not like before” he says. “Without support, my life would have been much more difficult.”

When Sokha was released, he was welcomed back by his community. He distanced himself from his previous gang and has made new friends. “I feel good now,” he says. “I have full freedom to do anything.” With this freedom, he plans to open his own shop.

For now, at the repair shop spread with fans, computers and amplifiers, he continues to work towards that goal. Receiving a nod from his boss to proceed with the final steps to fix the television, he grins and bends over to continue surgery on the tangle of red, yellow and blue wires. After checking the power once again, the screen pops back to life.

Clearly proud but keen to appear casual, Sokha flips through the now-vivid channels. A blur of cartoons and news flies by before he settles on a music channel, from which a bittersweet song rings out.