Punishing forced labour, a litany of torture accusations, zero contact with family outside the country: Such preconceptions are the norm for Vietnam’s prisons, yet actually setting foot inside one reveals a bizarre new reality.
On a recent visit to Thu Duc Prison, around three hours outside Ho Chi Minh City, nobody could remember such an event ever occurring before – a delegation of foreign reporters allowed to enter inside the nation’s secretive prison system and speak directly to inmates.
The trip essentially took place due to the Vietnam-EU free trade agreement that Vietnam’s National Assembly ratified in June 2020. As part of the negotiations, the legislative body also ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 105 – an accord that, on paper, obliges the country to end all forms of forced labour, including in prisons.
Lieutenant General Ho Thanh Dinh, a two-star general and director of Vietnam’s national prison system, led a tour of the expansive grounds where distant rubber plantations shift in the breeze and inmates construct stately buildings – one stands beside a lake overlooked by a replica of Singapore’s famous Merlion.
What was once a former re-education camp for southern Vietnamese now houses over 6,000 inmates, of whom more than 150 are foreigners. It doesn’t take long, however, to understand why such access is rare.
As the group explored the inner prison, two Nigerian inmates rushed towards reporters, desperate to talk.
“We are begging them to give us a chance to speak to our relatives, ” said Nicholas Star, who was jailed for drug-related crimes. “Nobody in my family knows where I am.”
Shortly after, police ushered away visiting journalists. Officials later confirmed that only family based in-country can be contacted via a Vietnamese phone number.
In the area for foreigners, 13 prisoners sleep together in one cell, while as many as 40 cohabit in cells for Vietnamese. Dinh said the two groups of inmates are treated equally. Vietnamese prisoners were largely kept out of sight during the tour.
Malaysian inmate Hilton Gomez, 52, who runs a landscaping team, said: “They treat us better than the Vietnamese. Because we are foreigners, we have more privileges. We have evening sports like ping-pong.”
Yet, he added that they would go into solitary confinement for up to 10 days, or lose a reduction in sentence, if they misbehave.
Inmates can read books in a prison library on Sundays or during breaks. Above the library, a message inscribed on the walls extols the virtues of education. Inside, copies of classics by Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner and Bill Bryson rest alongside Men’s Health magazine and a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which details a literature professor’s relationship with a 12-year-old girl. The prison’s most infamous former inmate is British pop star and convicted paedophile Gary Glitter.
After a 5am wakeup call, inmates eat a basic breakfast before working outside until 5pm. Officials say there is a focus on rehabilitation and acquiring skills related to forestry, carpentry, fishing or garment-making.
At lunch, reporters saw the inmates’ talent on full display in a plush, lakeside restaurant built by prisoners and used by officials. Beside the eatery, leathery crocodiles rested in a large metal cage – a feature that was never explained.
While the visit marked a rare display of transparency, issues remain. In 2019, an Amnesty International report said Vietnam holds at least 128 prisoners of conscience where “detention conditions remain appalling, with evidence of prisoners being tortured and otherwise ill-treated, routinely held in-communicado and in solitary confinement, kept in squalid conditions, and denied medical care, clean water and fresh air.”
Minh Nguyen, a Hanoi-based programme specialist for the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said: “Article 30 of the Law on Execution of Criminal Judgements is clear: Inmates are to receive compensation for their labour.
“Although the National Assembly did not agree to legalise ‘labour outside prisons’, from media sources we are aware of instances where inmates indeed provided labour outside prisons.”
“Ratification of ILO Convention 105 is just the first step forward, but what really matters is changes to national laws and regulations, followed by effective enforcement, ” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division, told dpa.
Yet according to local media reports, Labour Minister Dao Ngoc Dung reportedly said that working inmates will still be regulated by ILO Convention 29 – signed in 2007 and offering fewer protections – rather than Convention 105, which brings into question how much the new accord will provide any new safeguards.
At the tour’s conclusion, Dinh presented a carved wooden gift to each reporter – evidence of the focus they place on vocational training.
“We have souvenirs, ” he said. “Fine art made by prisoners, which we’d like to give to you.” – dpa