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Cablegate: A Prison for the Worst Offenders

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HANOI 000638

SIPDIS

STATE FOR DRL AND EAP/BCLTV

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PINS PGOV SNAR SOCI VM CNARC CTERR HUMANR
SUBJECT: A PRISON FOR THE WORST OFFENDERS

REF: A. 02 HANOI 2942 B. 02 HANOI 2407

1. (U) Summary. At what was described as only one of two
prisons nationwide for serious male criminal offenders,
conditions were basic, clean, and orderly. Prisoners must
work without pay on prison farms, which produce most of the
prison food. Almost 40 pct of the prisoners were convicted
on narcotics-related charges; about 25 pct are HIV-positive
and receive some basic treatment. Officials insisted that
corporal punishment was "never" used, and that discipline
was good. It is not impossible that this may be only a
Potemkin-type prison (probably at least spruced up for our
visit), but it seems even more likely that prison conditions
reflect a highly organized and regulated penal system. The
real penal problem in Vietnam is not bad prison conditions
per se but the weak judicial system that decides the fates
of prisoners. End Summary.

Breakthrough visit
------------------

2. (U) Officials from the Ministries of Public Security
and Foreign Affairs on March 2 escorted Pol/C, poloff, and
FSN to Vinh Quang prison in Vinh Phuc province, about a two-
hour drive northwest of Hanoi. After visits in 2002 to
Class 2 (aka Class B) prisons -- for prisoners with
sentences between 5 and 20 years -- in Thanh Hoa (ref a) and
Hai Duong (ref B), Embassy in December 2002 formally
requested permission to visit a Class 1 prison -- for
prisoners with sentences between fifteen years and life. It
took fourteen months to obtain permission.

3. (U) According to Vinh Quang Prison Superintendent Tran
Manh Hung, no foreign diplomats had ever visited this
prison, nor had there ever been any foreign prisoners. (A
delegation of Danish lawyers visited in 2003, however,
bringing donations of clothing and other items.) He
explained that Vinh Quang was only one of two Class 1
prisons nationwide, with the other in "the south" (he
declined to say where). The prison was initially built in
1972, although most of the buildings appeared much newer.
Superintendent Hung explained that the GVN was in the midst
of a US$60 million program to improve prisons nationwide;
Vinh Quang is also building new cellblocks to replace older
facilities, as he showed our delegation. He instructed us
not to take photographs (although one young official
videotaped virtually the entire visit and subsequent
luncheon) or attempt to talk to prisoners.

New realities of narcotics and HIV
----------------------------------

4. (U) Currently, there are "about" 800 prisoners between
the ages of 18 and 75; the number has grown steadily in the
30 years Superintendent Hung has worked there. Between 30
and 40 pct of all prisoners were convicted on narcotics-
related charges, he noted, about a 50 pct increase over the
past decade. Those addicted to narcotics essentially must
go cold turkey, with some help from acupuncture and other
traditional treatments. He insisted that there had never
been an incident of drug trafficking or use within the
prison, and claimed that it was "unthinkable" that corrupt
guards would ever engage in such illicit trade or turn a
blind eye. Family visitors are carefully searched, he
noted. Families are allowed to visit only once a month, but
may do so pretty much at their own convenience, he added.

5. (U) Another recent development related to previous
narcotics use is the growing number of HIV-positive
prisoners, now running about 25 pct of the total prison
population. Superintendent Hung said that the prison's
first case was detected only about three years ago.
Prisoners are tested upon arrival, and are informed whether
or not they are infected. They, too, receive some basic
treatment at the small prison infirmary, which has a doctor,
a pharmacist, and several nurses, and which provides both
Western and Asian drugs. More serious cases (i.e.
operations) are sent to the provincial hospital or to Hanoi.
All medical care is free. Other common ailments include
pneumonia and Hepatitis-B. Prison officials warned against
contact with prisoners at the infirmary, claiming
"contagious diseases." Prisoners with HIV are not
segregated. Those in the final stages of AIDS are sometimes
sent home to die, according to the Superintendent.

Basic conditions for Vietnam's worst offenders
--------------------------------------------- -

6. (U) Security did not appear notably tighter at Vinh
Quang than at the Thanh Hoa Class 2 prison; the external
wall and front gate differed from most government facilities
only by the barbed wire at the top. Around the dormitory
cellblock is yet another taller fence, with sentries posted
atop at each corner. Guards (who were numerous) did not
appear to be armed. The grounds were clean (perhaps spruced
up for this visit), and dotted with trees, ornamental
plants, and ponds.

7. (U) Prisoners sleep 30 to a room, atop woven mats on
double-deck platforms. The prison supplies winter covers
(like duvets), although families may also provide better
quality ones or additional blankets. The prison also
provides two sets of the distinctively stripped uniforms
(and two sets of underwear) per year, but prisoners may wear
personal clothes (i.e. jackets) in the evenings and on
weekends. Each prisoner has a small box with a lock for
personal possessions. Each cell has a small bathroom for
common use. Windows are barred. There is one small
television per room.

8. (U) Prisoners not only elect a cell leader but also rate
each other by vote as "good," "fair," "average," or "poor"
in their behavior. The 20 pct or so who are "good" may be
rewarded with conjugal overnight visits in a separate "Room
of Happiness." (The Superintendent added that prisoners who
are HIV-positive, however, are not permitted conjugal
visits.) Other prisoners receive family members in an
adjacent room, in which a double screen physically separates
them from their loved ones, under the supervision of a
guard. The ten to fifteen pct who are judged "poor" are
"never" subject to physical punishment, Superintendent Hung
insisted. While claiming that there were no cells for
solitary confinement, "exceptionally" bad prisoners were
sometimes "isolated," he admitted, without further
explanation.

Work, with weekends off
-----------------------

9. (U) All prisoners must work, with no pay. Unlike other
facilities that have some modest industries (i.e., sewing at
the Thanh Hoa prison) or vocational training, the only
occupation at Vinh Quang is to manage the prison's
apparently extensive farms and lakes. Prisoners work in the
fields growing rice and vegetables, and also raise fish,
chicken, ducks, pork, and cattle. (Some prisoners also
appeared to be cutting rocks.) According to Superintendent
Hung, much of the food consumed in prison was produced on
the prison grounds. Meals are sent to the individual
cellblocks.

10. (U) Superintendent Hung said that prisoners in theory
work an eight hour day, with a two hour luncheon/siesta
break, although in reality they often work no more than six
hours. Weekends are free for sports (with frequent soccer
games between prisoners and guards), "cultural activities,"
reading, etc. Superintendent Hung claimed "good relations"
between the prisoners and the guards, who also reside on the
premises (without family members), albeit in different (and
better) quarters. Prisoners may send and receive mail, and
are able to purchase small items (cigarettes, soap, cookies,
sugar) at the prison, or their families may supply such
items. Few prisoners smoke tobacco, however, the
Superintendent claimed.

No political prisoners here
---------------------------

11. (U) Apart from narcotics, murder was another frequent
crime, Superintendent Hung stated. He insisted that there
were no prisoners convicted on charges related to "national
security," "national solidarity," or "espionage." All
prisoners at this facility, however, have lost the right to
vote or to be a candidate in elections. None of the
prisoners at Vinh Quang were included on this year's Tet
amnesty, although the Superintendent predicted that some
would be on the April 30 "Liberation Day" holiday. In 2003,
12 prisoners were released and 400 received sentence
reductions (sometimes only a month or so) in various
amnesties, according to the Superintendent.

12. (U) The goal of the State was to "re-educate" all
prisoners, according to Superintendent Hung. All new
arrivals go through a basic 7 to 10 day training course to
learn prison regulations and values. A large sign in the
dormitory block provides basic instructions: "First learn
obedience, then study culture." Illiterate prisoners -- who
are few, according to the Superintendent -- are taught to
read.

Comment
-------

13. (U) This Class 1 prison was clean, orderly, but
equipped with fairly basic amenities, and very much
resembled the Class 2 prisons we have visited. Given the
generally acceptable conditions (which may have been
improved for this visit), it is somewhat puzzling that the
GVN was so slow to permit a visit, other than the simple
lack of precedent. The timing of the visit just after the
release of the 2003 Human Rights Report was especially
ironic; the Superintendent noted with displeasure the HRR
and its descriptions of prisons. Pol/C emphasized to prison
officials and the MPS and MFA representatives that only by
more visits would we be able more accurately to report on
prison conditions and regulations, and that more access and
openness would befit the improving relations between our two
countries.

14. (U) The prison did have somewhat the atmosphere of a
Potemkin village; we saw no more than 50 prisoners all
together (about 20 in the new entrants' class, about a dozen
in the kitchen and at the health clinic, and a very few
working in the adjacent fields). With grounds of over 260
hectares, it is not impossible that others were working
farther away, but it did seem odd to see so few people out
of such a large prison population. It also is hard to
believe that there are only two facilities in the entire
nation for crimes of more than 15 years.

15. (U) Given the GVN's penchant for supervision, it is
not unlikely that the well-ordered prison reflects an
extensive system of regulations. The Superintendent's
claims that space per prisoner as well as daily amounts of
rice, meat, and vegetables are all set by the State seem
credible. Overall, the more serious penal problem in
Vietnam appears not with actual prison conditions, but
rather with the weak judicial processes and insufficient
respect by judicial and police officials for the rights of
defendants that decide the fates of prisoners.
BURGHARDT

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