Phnom Penh, Cambodia – For the first 18 months of his life, the only home Sopheary’s son knew was a cramped prison cell.
“The kids would try to shake the window and the door to get out but they couldn’t, so they would cry,” said Sopheary, whose name has been changed to protect her family’s privacy. “It was very chaotic.”
Three months pregnant when she was swept up in a drug raid on a karaoke parlour in July 2015, Sopheary denied knowledge of the methamphetamine found on her client but was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, reduced to two on appeal.
It was inevitable the baby she was carrying would be born during her sentence. And, with her relatives unable to care for him, his first – and developmentally crucial – months were spent in an adult prison that has become increasingly crowded because of a major government crackdown on drugs.
When he was born, “he was so small, like a monkey”, Sopheary told Al Jazeera. She blamed his low birth weight on receiving inadequate nutrition from her food rations during her pregnancy. And, like other mothers interviewed for this story, she said she was unable to breastfeed so relied on formula provided by a non-governmental organisation.
Prison budgets allocate just $0.70 per prisoner per day for food (which covers two basic, rice-based meals), and half that for accompanying infants, though local NGOs working closely with prisoners claim the children rarely receive their allowance and pregnant women do not receive any prison-issue nutritional supplements.
“We have received reports of mothers returning to the prisons with newborn babies to sleep on cell floors with no assistance with extra food portions, breastfeeding, sanitation and after-birth care,” said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho).
For Sopheary and her son, the situation in their “tiny” cell worsened as time wore on. A war on drugs ordered by Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen has seen more than 13,000 people jailed since January, many for minor drug offences.
Scores of pregnant women and mothers with small infants have been rounded up and thrown into an already overburdened prison system as part of the crackdown.
One NGO worker, who asked not to be named because of fears of repercussions in the current political climate, said growing up in overcrowded and dirty cells is stunting the children’s development, with toddlers limited to small spaces or confined to lie in hammocks all day.
“It’s true that they’re usually in a women’s ward, but [they prisoners] don’t want children in there. They’re not encouraged to talk, walk or jump up and down. It’s definitely not a place for a child to grow up,” the NGO worker said, adding many children have difficulty functioning normally when they enter society.
“The lack of contact with families and communities can greatly negatively impact the whole development of the child,” Pilorge added. “Children become institutionalised as they literally grow up in prison. They witness violence and are exposed to dangerous conditions.”
According to Licadho there were 102 children and 56 pregnant women being held in 18 prisons monitored by the group as of July.
There is a total of 28 prisons in Cambodia, meaning actual figures are likely to be higher.
Under Cambodian law, it is legal for a child to stay with his or her mother in prison until they are three years old, though an official with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said some children stay longer.
Hun Sen called for an end to the practice in early 2015, saying “we won’t allow any women who have children or are pregnant inside jails anymore”. His comments came after Licadho released a report on their poor living conditions, and were followed up by pardons for some of the women.
But the number of pregnant women and children imprisoned with their mothers soon began to grow, and has done so “rapidly” since the war on drugs began. In particular, the situation for pregnant women and children in Prey Sar – the country’s largest prison – is “becoming critical”, according to the anonymous NGO worker.
The OHCHR official also raised concerns about overcrowding and inadequate nutrition, as well as a lack of clean water and access to health services for the children.
Sorn Keo, a spokesman for the general department of prisons, rejected the claims, insisting the government offers pregnant women and mothers regular maternal health checks and adequate food while additional nutrients are provided through partnerships with NGOs.
“We have created programmes to offer special help for pregnant women,” he said. “In general, even those in Banteay Meanchey [province] and [Prey Sar], the pregnant prisoners and their babies receive special care. They have access to a better treatment than general prisoners.”
Keo added the department was drafting regulations to provide additional support for their nutritional needs, and planned to bring a health expert on board to redesign the meal rations for mothers and babies.
In the meantime, NGOs say they are desperately scrambling to offer extra food to women and children currently behind bars. Because of the way donor funding is allocated, they’ve been unable to secure funding quickly enough to keep up with the rising numbers.
“This shouldn’t be down to NGOs – it should be the government,” the NGO worker said. “There are people inside the general department of prisons who know this and are looking for funds, but it is very hard.”
Pilorge said a “culture of corruption” within the prison system further exacerbates the problem, especially for poor women who cannot afford to bribe officers for better conditions.
“If a mother has no money to pay, she literally will not be able to get anything extra from the prison. This includes extra food, clean water, time outside of the cells,” she said.
And once they’re released, the women and their children often struggle to move on.
When Sopheary was released in July after two years, her infant son was “traumatised” by his first experience of the outside world, a motorbike ride across Phnom Penh to their home.
“He was so scared hearing the sound of the traffic,” she said. “He was crying and holding on to me really tight.”
While he now appears happy and healthy, she worries about the long-term affect on his development and the likely stigma he will face growing up in a culturally conservative society.
“I’m afraid that when he grows older people will say that he was in prison,” she said. “That he will be stereotyped and people will bully him.”
Sopheary gave her son a name that translates to “Free Soon” but he was not issued a birth certificate, crucial for accessing government services and getting an education.
While he may be free now, the system could keep him caged for years to come.
Additional reporting by Leng Len