» This Life Beyond Bars Programme

This Life Beyond Bars Programme

Siem Reap Prison
Siem Reap Prison

 

I was given a very rare opportunity to visit Siem Reap prison. Few westerners enter the prison (except of course those that are locked up there: at the time of writing more than 10 western paedophiles and various other foreign criminals). What made the visit even more remarkable was that 3 of us were allowed to take our cameras in! Our remit: to capture images of the vocational training program that our NGO, This Life Cambodia (TLC) offers to juveniles inside the prison. We were under strict orders to only take photos of the participants of the two workshops that form part of the training program – the workshops are located inside the prison complex, but a wall still separated us from the holding cells.

This was my first visit to any prison so I didn’t really know what to expect. In our party were two members of the program team from our NGO, one of the NGO’s directors, a professional photographer and myself. The professional photographer was drafted in to ensure that we really got the shots we were looking for, because this truly was a rare opportunity and we couldn’t risk not getting top notch photos! Unfortunately TLC has recently been informed that our main funder, AusAID (Australian Agency for International Development) is cutting back on funding and this program is very likely to lose its main sponsor as a result of this. Therefore the action plan now is to create marketing material powerful enough to win new sponsors to ensure this very successful program can be kept alive – hence the need for some good photos too!

There was one extra rule: we cannot use any photos from which individual juvenile prisoners can be recognised so we had to bear this in mind when taking the photos.

The prison is located just beyond the outskirts of Siem Reap town and is surrounded by vast rice fields. I know there have been severe problems of flooding in the prison in the past (sometimes some of the walls even collapsed during the flooding season and it is easy to see why!).

We arrived and the first thing that struck us was the beautiful indigo blue colour in which the main gate and the walls of all the buildings have been painted. I expected some bureaucratic hassles at the gate, but there weren’t any: the gates swung open and we drove in. A beautifully kept garden lay in front of us and again for a second I almost forgot where we were! In this area one could see the Prison Director’s office, some administrative offices as well as the visitor rooms (like the ones you see in the movies where there are chairs/ benches on either side of a barred window).

After parking the car we walked around to the area where the vocational training workshops are. The premises were well kept: the footpaths, the gardens as well as all the surrounding buildings (all painted in the friendly blue colour). The garden contained some rather odd items: concrete animals (painted in bright colours) as well as large concrete mushrooms all over the place.. Interesting.

We were greeted at the first workshop by a group of 7 juveniles as well as the Vocational Trainer (from TLC’s ‘This Life Beyond Bars’ program). The boys (aged 16-20 years) were friendly and all greeted as warmly in a respectful manner. It really felt like walking into a classroom – no difference whatsoever. They were wearing (you guessed right) blue uniforms (although these were not quite the friendly lighter blue colour of the surrounding buildings). Actually the class had already begun when we arrived so the boys returned to their seats and all attention was back on the trainer. This was our cue to start taking photos.

Electronics training class
Electronics training class

 

The second workshop (moto repair) was adjacent to the first one (electronic repairs – i.e. televisions, dvd players etc) so we moved freely between the two – there were another 8 or 9 participants in the second workshop. Altogether I think we spent close to two hours in the prison. I certainly felt it was very easy to take photos: they were all very receptive to it and continued their training in a very natural way so nothing felt staged/ acted. All the time we were there I completely forgot that this actually was a prison and that these boys were there, because they broke the law. Prison sentences for juveniles can be extremely severe: sentences for stealing something as small and immaterial as a mobile phone can easily be three years. The boys we met were just normal kids, like we were once upon a time too: they made some mistakes and are paying a hefty price for it. I also made mistakes in my life, but I guess I am fortunate that I never ended up on the wrong side of the law. However, I truly saw the rays of hope during our visit: these boys do have a future, a life beyond bars, thanks to the brilliant work that our NGO (and also other NGOs) are doing in the prison. One also has to be grateful that the prison authorities allow NGOs to run these programs inside the prison – it is only through their on-going support that these programs can exist. I do not know what goes on inside the rest of the prison; I guess it is a prison like any other with some seriously bad characters all round, but this is not why we went and therefore it is also not for me to judge or voice an opinion. I am told the prison capacity is around 800, but currently there are more than 1,400 prisoners.

Moto repair workshop
Moto repair workshop

 

The program statistics speak for themselves: of the 32 juveniles that have to date participated in the program (and been released) none have reoffended. Before this program the rate of re-offense unofficially stood at 60% reoffending within 6 months.

It would be tragic to lose the funding (for reasons that are not even clear to me) for a program that has been so successful. We can only hope that our marketing campaign reaches the right audiences and that funding will be found to ensure these programs can continue, and grow, for years to come.

I am grateful for the opportunity to visit the prison – not for reasons of ‘finding something sensational to write about’, but for a very positive experience. It is beautiful to see that people can change. We all make mistakes. Some end up in prison, but there is no reason why people should not be given an opportunity to be reintegrated into society, as equals, when they have served their time. This program clearly goes beyond merely teaching juveniles a skill: it gives them self-confidence, dignity, joy, camaraderie, purpose and ultimately a better future. To those involved in the program: keep up your brilliant work – the work often goes unrecognised in the outside world, but you are truly serving your fellow man.

View a gallery of photos at:

http://erikvanrensburg.com/galleries/


Further reading:

http://www.thislifecambodia.org/programs/this-life-beyond-bars

http://www.thislifecambodia.org/newsroom/latest-news

Some statistics:

From the 2012 – 2013 This Life Beyond Bars Independently Audited report

Summary of achievements
This Life Beyond Bars (TLBB) program began its year 2 activities in February 2012, in Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey provinces. The program has three projects, including the
Vocational Training project, the Family Scholarship project, and the Community Development project.

The vocational training courses began in February 2012. At the beginning, 19 students
enrolled in these courses, which were provided three days a week in Moto Mechanic Repairs and Electronic Repairs. Of the 19 students, 14 attended the Moto Mechanic Repair course and the other five students enrolled in the Electronic Repair course. In addition, there were four former students attending the courses, working as peer assistants for the trainers, two of whom were in the Moto Repair course and two were in the Electronic Repair Course. Therefore, 23 students in total attended courses in year two of the TLBB program. They all also attended the personal development course, which was provided once a week. The course is aimed at building children’s self-esteem, self-worth, and reducing their stress. This will help children to reach their goals after they are released, and will enable them to feel that they have more options and choices upon release and they will be less likely to reoffend. By the end of year two, five students have been released from prison, one has attended the Appeal Court and has received a 6-month reduction in his sentence, and one has appealed to the Supreme Court, but is awaiting a response. All students who have already been released were followed up regularly. All of them have jobs. TLBB has supported materials to two post-released students to run a small business. One has established his own Moto repair shop. One has established an Electronic Repair shop. Another post-released student has been employed by a demining organization with the facilitation from TLC. Of the released students, none have reoffended.

TLBB have reconnected 11 minors in prison with their families through providing support for families to visit them and the others children have been visit from their family by their own. . Families can access TLBB support to visit their children once every month. During the year, 25 unique people, 20 of whom were female, were supported to visit their children in prison on 73 occasions.

The Family Scholarship project has four activities, which include income generation,
education support, healthcare and visitation. Six families have been selected to gain financial supports from the project. We provided a small budget (average of $110) to the six families to enable them to run small businesses in the community. The aim of this initiative was to sustain the family income, and to support their every-day activities, while their important family members are in prison. As a result, four families have established small businesses; two families are raising chickens, one family sells groceries, and the other sells fish. Within the supported families, 9 children are supported (4 girls) to continue their studies in state schools by providing bicycles, study materials, and private tutoring fees. All families also receive health insurance, which totals 65 USD on average per family per year. Of the six families, five were provided with visitation support which consisted of 56 occasions in total. 21 unique people (14 females) of all the members of the supported families received the visitation support.

The Community Development Project works with villagers, police officers and community
authorities within communes/sangkats where the Family Scholarship Project families reside.
The project provided trainings and workshops on issues such as human rights, domestic
violence and Cambodian laws. The workshops and training sessions aimed to address
issues related to safety and security in the target communes/sangkats. As a result, the
project has provided three workshops and three training sessions in three
communes/sangkats (once in each commune/sangkat) in Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey
provinces. In total, 850 people (558 females) have participated in the trainings and
workshops, 87 (26 females) of whom attended the trainings and the other 763 (532 females) attended the workshops. The project has also conducted household surveys in the three communes with the involvement from 150 families and focus group interviews with 38villagers (16 females). The surveys were aimed at assessing participant knowledge gained through attending the training sessions and workshops, and how this knowledge was shared with other villagers in the community.

 

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