In the Cambodian Clink

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


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Imagine a place so filthy, infested and decrepit that the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to use it as one of their torture chambers, so used it instead as a pigpen. That place was T3 prison, one of the first pieces of infrastructure built under the French protectorate.

The first buildings went up in 1877, and other than that brief period in the 1970s, it was in constant use until the turn of the millennium. Situated in the center of the city, between the National Museum and Kandal Market, it was one of Asia’s most dreaded prisons.

It was strange turning off the riverside and passing by Wat Ounalom and then seeing the grimy slime-encrusted walls and rusty barbed wire surrounding it and one could only envision the hell that existed inside.

In the year 2000 after the hellhole was finally torn down, the prisoners were moved to a new custom-built $2.5 million T3 on the outskirts of town in Meanchey District, with most of the funding coming from the sale of the land and that prison is now renamed Correctional Center 1.

An older facility exists nearby, Correctional Center 2, the Prey Sar prison for women and children, but both centers are more commonly known as Prey Sar.

Bad as T3 was, not far up the street, on the corner of 154 and Pasteur was an even worse place. Part of a larger police headquarters, this was PJ Prison, from the French Police Judiciaire. Built in 1937, it served briefly as the notorious S21, but in 1976 this moved to the more familiar Tuol Sleng location.

PJ became a prison again in the subsequent People’s Republic of Kampuchea and as there was no functioning court system detainees were essentially warehoused there for long periods, often without charge. In fact, there was no actual court system at all until 1982. Living conditions in general were extremely poor at this time, so they must have been unbelievable inside any prison. Beatings were common, and torture was routinely used in interrogation sessions.

One former police officer from Phnom Penh described an especially abusive interrogator saying: “Nobody dares to protest against this guy because he’s such a barbarian that for no reason at all he would throw any one of his own personnel in jail”.

A 1994 UN investigation revealed that the unit, built as a short-term lockup for 30-40 inmates, was actually housing 216. Overcrowding was so severe that sewage overflowed into cells and some inmates even had to sleep in the latrine. Shackling was common, as was prisoner on prisoner violence, and malnourishment and disease were rampant.

It’s surprising to think that later on, after the nearby T3 was demolished, prisoners would pay to be moved to PJ from other prisons. However, by this time conditions had improved a lot after a UN/Australian funded initiative.

The T3 compound did have one thing going for it though: the huge advantage of being in the center of town made it so much more convenient for visitors than other jails. Some foreigners incarcerated there reported it as being relatively comfortable due to the ease of getting meals delivered from local restaurants and apparently some were even let out during the day on the condition that they promised to return for the evening roll-call. One even escaped. (pictured below)

There’s no such choice now; the whole block was flattened a few years ago and PJ relocated to the faraway north of Russei Keo District.

Cambodia had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world in the mid 1990s, but since then the prison population has risen at an alarming rate. Overcrowding, abuse, violence, disease, poor sanitation and starvation rations are endemic. Nowadays on the site of T3 is a row of barbecued beef restaurants and where PJ prison once stood is Golden Sorya Mall. (see below)

Dermot Sheehan

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4 Responses to In the Cambodian Clink

  1. Soi Dog says:

    One can only imagine how horrendous Cambodian prison must be anytime, much less during and after the KR regime.

    Good article.

  2. Sanjay says:

    Stomach-wrenching stuff;well researched and grippingly written Dermot. You have successfully captured (a whiff of) those historical horrors, more than enough to bring to mind the darkest histories of these places when we are in PP. Your description of the current situation in respect of the location of PJ was especially interesting for me as I used to visit a friend in a far away prison back in Sydney-it was a punishment for her friends and family as well. Was the last sentence in your article meant to be sardonic/ironic?

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