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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Expat life inside a Cambodian prison

Cambodia’s prison population spiked in 2017, when a nationwide drug crackdown yielded 17,800 arrests. This swelled Cambodia’s prison population to 28,000 inmates.

18,000 of those inmates are packed inside Prey Sar Prison, a facility designed to hold 13,000.

Media reports describe a brutal existence: “Inside Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar Prison, inmates are subject to poor food, brutal punishment, crowded spaces and squalid conditions.”

Planet Asia recently met up with an ex-con just released from Prey Sar Prison. Cambodian-American ‘Jimmy Mango’ was caught selling drugs. He served a one-year sentence and was released in mid-April, 2019. In exchange for a donation (to help him get back on his feet), he agreed to tell us about his experience.

Early experiences shape one’s reality

Neural network of the brain
Experiences shape a reality that become hard-wired in the brain

The brain processes information across networks of specialized nerve cells. These include synapses, which serve as links to information. The more an action or habit is repeated, the stronger the synaptic connection.

From the age of 0-3, the brain develops twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood. The strong ones get retained through repetition of experience; the weaker ones are pruned. What’s left by adulthood is a limited stack of synapses that forms the individuals’ sense of reality.

Born into a life of crime

Cambodian refugees
Thousands of Cambodian refugees were sent to America in the late 1970s

The Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975 and wreaked havoc until their fall in 1979. Between 1975 and 1994, 158,000 Cambodians immigrated to the U.S. as refugees.

Jimmy Mango was born in the late 1976 in northern Cambodia. In 1978, he and his family were resettled in America as part of the exodus.

He landed in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District and was raised in the ghetto. Like many of his peers, he dropped out of school and started dealing drugs. This led to multiple stints in prison.

Exiled from America

In 2002, Washington signed a repatriation treaty with Cambodia that allowed the U.S. to de­port Cambodian-Americans back to Cambodia.Between 2002 and 2014, 467 Cambodians were deported to Cam­bodia (source).

Jimmy Mango was one of them. He was put on a plane and landed in Phnom Penh, where he was promptly locked up in a holding cell. “They were waiting for a bribe from my family. But when they realized I had no family to pay them, they let me go.”

Rugged Cambodia
He was thrown out onto the gritty streets with no money or connections

They literally just kicked him out of the cell and told him to get lost. With no money, no contacts and just a basic grip of the language, he made the long walk to Phnom Penh.
Once in the city, Jimmy Mango went back to what he knew to earn a living – dealing drugs. This landed him three stints inside Prey Sar Prison. After his most recent release, he shared his experiences of life on the inside.

Life inside Prey Sar Prison

Google around and you’ll find some basic ideas of conditions inside the prison, such as this article, which breaks down a typical day inside. In addition this expat somehow managed to sneak some images inside.

Inside Prey Sar Prison
A look at prison life from this unique blog

In general:

  • It’s extremely overcrowded – disease spreads fast
  • Guards run a brutal regime of fear
  • Clean water is not always available
  • A cell phone jamming station floods the prison in radio waves that cause extreme headaches
  • Food is scarce

Prison watchtower
Prison life will render you sick, weak and highly stressed

Living conditions

Jimmy Mango was locked in a cell with 77 other foreign inmates. Among them Africans, Americans, Chinese, Malaysians, Japanese and Cambodian Americans.

Most were in for drugs, visa overstay or theft. According to Jimmy, it didn’t matter among the inmates what your crime was – unless it was pedophilia. “Those guys got singled out and beaten bad. Every single day. But not bad enough to send to hospital – just bad enough for them to suffer.”

The toughest part when when locked down for the night. Because the cell was so crowded, sleeping was tough. No mattresses or sheets were provided, so most had to make do sleeping on concrete.

Daytime activities

Most Cambodians were put to work 10 hours a day in the rice fields. Foreigner prisoners had the option of working or not. Jimmy Mango spent his days walking in circles around the facility.

Prison food

Meals were served twice per day – a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup with a few carrots and shreds of lettuce.

Prisoners with money could order from the prison canteen at huge markups. Prisoners without money needed to improvise. A common trick, according to Jimmy, was to eat rats.

“They would start feeding a rat until it became a pet. Then they would keep feeding it for three weeks, which would fatten it up. Then they would roast it and share with their friends.”

While rats were a common supplement, the odd snake caught on the grounds was an option as well. In addition, worms, crickets, and whatever source of protein available.

Drugs and corruption

Jimmy Mango said that the chief who ran the prison was clean as a whistle. All of the crime that went down happened when he was off for the day.

Traditionally, guards supplement their incomes by sneaking drugs into the prison, where inmates buy at hugely inflated prices. Inside Prey Sar, it was a dangerous scam. Jimmy saw several guards get busted during his time inside. “They would make them change their clothes, then instantly throw them on the other side of the cage.”

Prison violence

Violence was strictly not allowed – anyone caught fighting would be severely punished.

That said, discrete squabbles were necessary and happened often. Jimmy recalls there being constant pressure to defend his space, or else become a ‘bitch’.

Prison bitches

The most disturbing thing Jimmy found inside were the prison bitches. These were people that had no money or power. So they would ‘trade’ themselves to others for protection. “They would wash their hair, clean their clothes, wear lipstick, and do whatever they were told to do.”

Life on the outside of Prey Sar Prison

Returnee in Phnom Penh
Fresh out of prison, Jimmy faces an uncertain future on the streets of Phnom Penh

Immediately upon release, Jimmy Mango did the same as when he landed in Cambodia: a long walk back to Phnom Penh.

He hopes to find a job offering free room and board, and thinks he would make a good bartender.

However, he’s sleeping rough, looking disheveled and seems to be losing hope. How long until Jimmy Mango goes back to what he knows, in order to make a living?

Deal drugs > get caught > prison > release > deal drugs


During the research for this story, we met another Cambodian-American returnee named Mr. Chang. He claims that he wasn’t deported. Living a basic lifestyle, he suffered a breakup, saw free flights for Cambodians wanting to leave America, and took a chance.

Someone took pity on him and let him serve as a security guard for a food cart. In exchange, he gets to sleep behind the food cart at night.

We told Mr. Chang Jimmy Mango’s story and he shook his head. “He’s no good. Whatever you give him is wasted. He doesn’t want to help himself.”

He strongly suggested to stop trying to help, because it would only lead to disappointment. “Leave it to me. I’m going to give him a Bible. That’s what he needs the most right now.”

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