A Discussion with Adam Hutchinson, Director of Prison Fellowship Cambodia

With: Adam Hutchinson

November 24, 2010

Background: In a conversation with Nathaniel Adams and Ethan Carroll on November 24, 2010, Adam Hutchinson, director of Prison Fellowship Cambodia (PFC), discusses his faith and current work in prison education and reintegration in Cambodia. Providing services in 25 prisons in partnership with 22 churches across the country, the PFC seeks to serve one of the neediest and most neglected populations in Cambodia by providing primary and secondary education, vocational and practical skills training, and reintegration support both before and after prison release. Over the course of the interview, Hutchinson discusses how his Christian faith and his work have been shaped by each other through his experience working in prisons since 2005, and how the PFC programs aim not only to educate prisoners and change their behavior, but also to restore the whole person so they can in turn have a lasting, positive impact on their communities upon their release.

Could you tell us a little about the history of PFC?

Prison Fellowship Cambodia was officially established in 2001. I’ve been with the organization since 2005. One of our founding stories is of a pastor returning home from church in an area near the Vietnamese border, where there is a large maximum-security prison. As he was driving past the prison, he saw a man standing by the side of the road wearing nothing but a scarf around his waist and looking a bit lost. The pastor stopped to talk to the man, and the man told the pastor that he had been in prison for 15 years and had just been released. The scarf was all he had. He had no way of getting home and his family lived on the coast, all the way on the other end of the country. So the pastor took him home, and gave him clothes and bus fare to get home. A few days later, the pastor received a call from the man to let him know that he had made it home to his family who hadn’t seen him in 15 years.

It was this incident that made him aware that there was a population in Cambodia that was really lost. At the time in Cambodia, prison was very much an environment of detention. There was no rehabilitation at all, just a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude. This particular prison was so far away from anywhere that few families were able to visit prisoners and provide them with some basic necessities. So that’s where it all started; there were a few groups including YWAM and the AOG church who had offered volunteers. We became involved with CCI (Prey Sar) prison and started asking them what they needed. They told us that they wanted to teach the prisoners morals and give them instruction on hygiene. So we started a moral excellence and hygiene class for 60 men. We began by exploring what the needs were. We started with food supplements, other basic needs, and a few small education programs.

PFC was actually one of the first organizations to start doing any work in prisons in Cambodia; even today, you could count them on your hand. It was a very hostile environment at that time, and the authorities were very suspicious of outside groups because most of them were human rights organizations that seemed to the prisons to want only to take photos. The few programs that existed, while well-intentioned, seemed more about gathering information and publicizing abuses. We just wanted to go in and care for the people that needed help; we weren’t interested in exposing abuses. Making abuses public would curtail our ability to serve the needs of the prisoners, which is our primary goal. Today we have over 50 staff, we partner with 22 churches across the country, and we provide services in 25 prisons. Our programs have developed in such a way that they now really work to help reform the corrections system as a whole.

Why did you first decide to come to Cambodia? Had you been working with prison populations before you came?

I started working in Cambodia in 1998. My wife and I were both good friends with Linda Chisholm who became the director of Prison Fellowship. We knew about the kind of work that Linda was doing and, to be honest, at the beginning, I wasn’t very interested. I had friends back in New Zealand who were working in prisons and they were always trying to get me into it. I had absolutely no interest, it didn’t ever really register as something that I would enjoy doing. After my wife and I went back home for a couple of years to have children, Linda sent us an email telling us about a prisoner reintegration project, which had just been set up and was the first of its kind in the country. They needed some people to come in for a couple of years to help develop it and then later hand it over to local people. Linda thought we would be great for the position and asked if we would consider it. We had 2-year-old twins and a 5-month-old baby at the time, so my wife and I ignored her emails. A month later, Linda flew over to talk to us about it, and we eventually gave in, but we only intended to stay for the two years. What we didn’t realize, however, is that prison ministry is a very addictive ministry, even among people who are not faith-motivated. Once you get involved in prisons there’s a pull because you realize that you are working with some of the lowest of the low, at least in the eyes of society. My eyes have been opened, even theologically my own faith has been shaped by what I’ve seen here. This experience has forced me to challenge my preconceived ideas and explore what justice really means. I often call it a roller coaster ride, but one that I thoroughly enjoy. I certainly have no intention of getting out of this line of work anytime soon.

Is there a common story that you see among prisoners in Cambodia?

Well, the most common story is that they’re all innocent, same as everywhere else in the world. (laughs) Apart from that, there are cases where you can see how the person got into the mess that they’re in, but don’t make any mistake--there are also rapists, murderers, thieves, and other violent criminals in Cambodian prison who are very difficult to reach. However, while the proportion of prisoners who claim to be innocent might be the same as in other parts of the world, admittedly, there is more doubt as to the guilt of prisoners in Cambodia because of inconsistencies in the judicial process in the country. There is also a lot of crime that has its roots in poverty. I think the issues surrounding crime and punishment and their solutions have common elements across many cultural contexts around the world. The principles of reintegration, the issues affecting children and family of prisoners are very similar, whether you are in a wealthy or less-developed nation. This is the sense I get as I network with prison fellowships around the world.

How does someone in prison get engaged with PFC? Do inmates seek out a particular program, a class for example? Can you tell us more about how you run your programs?

It depends on what service they are trying to access. Right now we have about 3,000 prisoners in our education programs, roughly 25 percent of the prison population. On the academic side, we have high school and primary school programs for the youth. Literacy is a very large program of ours, and we have some religious education. The practical skills programs are centered on vocational training: welding, motorbike mechanics, electronics repair, haircutting, computer skills, weaving, and design. We also have creative programs such as sports, art, and music.

We notify the prison when it’s time for a new group of students to come into a class, and the prison chief makes a list of the prisoners in the last two years of their sentence who have enough time left in their sentence to finish the program. Of that list, those who are well-behaved and considered minimum-security are allowed into the programs. Depending on the prison some may have to pay; we are not sure exactly how that happens. In the good prisons people get in based on merit; in other prisons there are probably some underhanded transactions going on, which we are not naive about.

Some of the courses are taught by the prisoners themselves when they have a certain skill set. In every prison you have engineers, welders, just about every skill imaginable. Our literacy program, for example, is taught in-cell because you only get so much time outside of your cell per day. Previously, we did literacy programs that would have only 300 people a year across multiple prisons because they were the only prisoners allowed to come out to a classroom with a hired teacher. We later found that if we taught prisoners how to teach and we held classes in the cells, we could reach 10 times the number of students for exactly the same cost. So we expanded the program from 300 literacy students to 3,000 literacy students within a matter of months.

We are bound by the corrections management system, which says that only prisoners in the last third of their sentence are entitled to access education programs. In Cambodia, maximum and minimum-security designations are not based on how dangerous you are, but on how much of your sentence you’ve done. If you have a two-year sentence and you’ve served one year, you are still considered medium to maximum-security because you’ve only served half your sentence. Whereas if you are a serial murderer who is sentenced to 30 years and you’ve already served 20 years, for the last 10 you’re considered minimum-security. This whole system is changing so rapidly now though, so it won’t stay that way for long. But as of yet it hasn’t been a top priority to change this.

Also, pre-trial detainees are not technically prisoners so they cannot access the prisoner programs. If you look at the 13,000 prisoners in Cambodia at the moment, about 30 percent are pre-trial detainees. This excludes about 4,000 individuals, which leaves us with 9,000 prisoners, and about half of these are medium to maximum-security. So we only have a pool of prisoners of around 4,500 that we can access. As a result we can probably only reach about 15 to 20 percent of the total prison population. So that’s where the in-cell programs come in, to reach some of those prisoners that don’t get to come out and access the other programs.

Do Christian morals figure into your education programs?

Morals are morals; whether you teach Buddhist or Christian morals, the morality is there, and it contributes to behavior change. One anecdote—we developed an education facility at the maximum-security prison in the first PFC story I mentioned. The prison had a massive riot about five years ago, and we were one of the few organizations allowed in while the prison was on 24-hour lockdown, simply because we don’t take photos. We were providing food and healthcare in a very hostile environment—about 14 people were shot dead including the prison chief. We invested all we could, and some prisoners wanted to know why we were doing what we were doing. They knew we were a Christian organisation and they asked to study the bible. A number of the inmates started to embrace Christianity and there was actually a significant behavioral change. When more people were allowed out for courses, the whole prison environment changed, and the programs developed from there. It wasn’t necessarily a plan of ours, we were just in there doing whatever we could and taking whatever opportunity was offered. Then they asked us if we could recreate the program in the nation’s largest prison, CC1. So they had even recognized the fact that the faith-based programs were contributing significantly to behavior change.

We are well-regarded among secular groups because they’ve seen the way we work in prisons. With some prison ministry groups it’s all about preaching the gospel and bible programs. But for us, if we set out to create a literacy program, it’s a literacy program, that’s all it is. It’s not a vehicle for delivering a religious message, unless you count unspoken messages of practical love! We have developed this model based on serving people. We want to see people restored and made right again. If someone responds to that and they want to know more about why we are doing it, that is up to them to ask. Many do in prison, but we don’t have figures on what they do when they are released. In some prisons, 20 or 30 people start a little church group, and so we work with churches in the surrounding areas and they often go in and do bible programs. About 10 percent of the prison population are involved in some type of discipleship or bible program. Of course, some only go into those programs to get out of their cells, but others really embrace it. When guys come out, we try to connect them to a church nearby and they might go and visit. Again, our church partners build relationships with these guys on the inside, so once they are out they continue these relationships, it’s all very natural.

Is faith an important element when PFC hires staff?

Generally we employ professing Christians. We get people who come in as contract staff who are non-Christian, and some convert and are very vibrant in their faith. Others come in with great references from pastors, but they end up being some of the least faith-motivated people I’ve ever met. When I employ someone I look at everything. Someone may have skills that look great and others might not have done anything before, but I just have a good feeling about them. We are all people on a journey, even myself. In my time here my faith’s gone up and down. It’s very easy to be faith-filled when life is easy. Faith sometimes gets tuned-out in the dark parts. Everybody goes through that.

Have you ever worked with monks or the pagoda system at the community level?

Yes, particularly when we’re dealing with released prisoners who have no other community support and nowhere to stay. That’s where the monks are more involved, with people who are destitute.

I know prisoner reintegration is a core PFC focus; could you explain that process?

In the reintegration program we work with prisoners about a year before release. At CC1, CC2, and Kandal prisons we get a list of everyone who’s being released in the next six to twelve months, which can be up to 500 prisoners. Our social workers visit as many of them as possible to explain the reintegration service and ask if they would like to access it—about half say yes and we interview more to help them plan and sort out some issues prior to release. For those who are worried about the state of their families and whether they will be accepted or not, we visit families and where necessary mediate or provide support to improve their situations. We can only accommodate about 150 people a year through the the pre-release courses out of the 400 who access the reintegration services annually.

We have a reintegration center called PFC Blue Gate House Centre on the outside that we tell prisoners about and around 300 of them will go there upon release. Perhaps half of those who arrive at the centre we have never seen before; the prison guards who are familiar with the centre will often bring them, and we pay a transportation fee as an incentive.

After the 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking have you see a greater number of prostitutes or formerly trafficked individuals in prison?

I haven’t seen a marked increase since the law, but there has always been a significant population. You find very few men who are in prison for human trafficking; you mostly find the prostitutes and brothel owners. It’s very hard to prevent them from going back to the same lifestyle again, but it’s easier for female prisoners who have family. Often the husband has gone off and taken another wife; in that case you help the woman start from scratch and find her children. About 80 percent of women in prison have children. Our social workers will always ask: “What is your plan? Have you thought about what you want to do?” Often they say they want to go back to doing what they were before, but occasionally they will have heard of jobs in different places. We start to work with them about six months before their release, and we go out to some of these places they suggested to see if it would actually work for them. Some of them will come to us upon release as well and ask us to help them start a business, so we help them develop a business plan and set everything up. For women that don’t have any accommodations, we get them into a rented house, preferably in a location where they can start a business.

We’ve just entered into a partnership with Hagar on a project called Fresh Start, which currently works with women affected by abuse and trafficking. We hope they can take on more of our case management load with women as they get off the ground because we prefer to focus more on men since very few organizations do. They are slowly developing a career pathways program, working with women on both soft and hard skills. They’ve developed a transition center, which is good for us as well, because it’s difficult when there is such a small population of women in prison (only about 5 percent). There are only about 50 being released each year, and about half go home. Only about five or six will come to our reintegration center at Bluegate House. We’ve always had great difficulty because we have mostly male clients at our center. Hagar’s transition center will be quite good for us, and we are trying to get them into the prisons in order to start building those relationships.

With things changing so rapidly in the corrections system is PFC able to have some say in the process, since you are working so closely with prison management?

Yes, we do. I would say that this is probably one of the most rapidly changing areas in the entire country. Before the prison department came to existence in 2000, it was run by the police. At that time prisons were essentially detention centers. Bear in mind, prisons are administered by the Ministry of the Interior, while the courts are administered by the Ministry of Justice. So prison management doesn’t really have much say in terms of who is coming into their prisons. As much as things are being improved within the prison system itself, it won’t make much difference unless the justice system changes as well. The human rights organizations often gloss over all of these institutions as “the government,” but if you don’t differentiate between them, you won’t be able to see any progress. If you look at the corrections management system on its own, however, the progress is staggering. Before cells were deplorable, the food was awful, corruption was endemic, prison deaths rates were shameful. When the prison department was first created it didn’t have its own budget, it had to draw funds from other areas, so it didn’t have much freedom. Around 1997, the Australian government began pouring quite a lot of money, expertise, and support through the Cambodian Criminal Justice Assistance Project. And things really changed around 2005, when H.E. Heng Hak became director general. He was a visionary and has influence, which is important.

How would you go about measuring the impact of your work?

We need to look more closely at how to mirror our work inside the prison in the outside world. We did a small impact assessment of about 100 clients, looking at where they are now. We found that it was often difficult to use the skills they learned in prison in an actual job. The motorbike mechanics often didn’t start a shop because it’s just too expensive. Those who did electronic repair would get some work here and there, but they never really found steady employment. We need to bolster our support for these guys to get them into business. We help a number of people set up small businesses, which often involves their entire community. We provide a grant; we have given up on loans. We have tried just about every arrangement but what we’ve decided is you need to get them, their family, and the community to all share in the effort. This is one of the areas I see growing for PFC in the future. This would involve continuing education programs, career pathway programs, to get guys into jobs and also to generate jobs. We also would like to expand into new areas: catering, construction, sub-contracting, tiling, plastering, and painting. There’s a construction boom right now so we’d like to help create small businesses that utilize guys from the prison system.

Do you believe that working with prison populations is key to transforming society more broadly?

I do see it as having a broad effect because we don’t focus on a single community. We are casting seeds. We are aware that if we do a really good job with one individual, and he goes back to his community and does a good job building a support system in that community, the benefit spreads. As our newly revised vision statement reads, we want “to see those affected by crime and prison restored and empowered to improve their communities.” We don’t just want someone to be a person who doesn’t commit crime, but to be someone who can really make a positive contribution. If you can positively influence one person, the rest of the community feels that influence as well. We have a lot of anecdotal stories of people who have gone back into their communities and people see that these guys have really changed because of what they have been through. They are able to help other young people deal with similar problems. That’s our aim. If we work with 3,000 people this year, after they leave us we can impact thousands of communities through them.

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