Wardens win foreign hearts at Vietnam’s largest prison

By Quoc Thang, Dinh Van   February 15, 2024 | 07:20 pm PT
Captain Doan Ngoc Do Quyen was worried when she took on the task of managing 29 foreign female prisoners, most of whom were serving life sentences at Vietnam’s largest prison.

With a gentle smile, the female captain from the northern province of Bac Giang said she found a lot of joy in her job as warden of Camp No. 1 at Thu Duc Prison in the central province of Binh Thuan.

It is one of the largest prisons in the country which houses more than 800 foreign prisoners of 39 nationalities.

"The prison warden's task is to be close to prisoners and educate them, so that they can recognize the mistakes they have made and atone," Quyen said.

She’s been working the job for the past 16 years.

Captain Doan Ngoc Do Quyen speaks on the experiences of foreign female inmates. Photo by Dinh Van

Captain Doan Ngoc Do Quyen speaks on the experiences of foreign female inmates. Photo by Dinh Van

Quyen is highly appreciated for her work in educating hundreds of criminals. However, in 2020, when assigned to manage 29 foreign women aged 27-80 years old, from 12 different nationalities, the captain was quite concerned.

Most of the wards were serving life sentences on drug-related charges.

"The biggest barrier is language," Quyen said. To manage and educate prisoners, the prison teaches them Vietnamese so they can communicate. She can speak basic English, but not all her prisoners from abroad know this language, so making them understand Vietnamese is not a simple task. The work of understanding their psychology, customs, and living habits takes a lot of time and effort.

Quyen only had a few words to say about herself, but when it came to prisoners, the captain was excited to talk.

She spoke of one case she found difficult in the beginning. She said she was very confused when she received a woman from an ethnic minority tribal community in Laos. No one in the camp spoke the prisoner's language, so she mainly interacted with others using body language. The captain, therefore, had to teach the prisoner how to communicate properly without so much as a single word in common to begin with.

Another case was an Asian prisoner, who did not know any foreign language, and protested strongly against being forced to work with a fellow European prisoner. Quyen had to be the mediator and arbiter of the conflict. After ample time and patience communicating with both prisoners, she was able to understand the problem, despite the language barriers, and help them solve it.

"I'm very happy that they are willing to learn. Now most can speak and understand basic Vietnamese, so it is easier to explain to them how Vietnam’s leniency policy works. Thanks to that, they were excited to atone, in hopes of returning home soon," Quyen said.

Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Trung discusses the oversight of foreign inmates. Photo by Quoc Thang

Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Trung discusses the oversight of foreign inmates. Photo by Quoc Thang

In the same camp, Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Trung has 18 years of experience educating male foreign prisoners. The prisoners have different personalities and cultures, but the task of educating and persuading prisoners is the same, he said, so prison officers like him must clearly understand the characteristics of each person to be able to interact and guide them accordingly.

Many years ago, Ifeanyi Ezekiel Okonkwo, a Nigerian, was sent to serve a life sentence at Thu Duc Prison for illegally transporting drugs. When he first entered the camp, this prisoner, who was over 1.9 m tall, claimed he was innocent, refused to accept his sentence, stopped eating, and always caused trouble with others.

Through research, Trung learned that Okonkwo was born into a poor family in the remote countryside and had worked many jobs, but his life was still unstable. In 2019, he was invited by friends to go to Vietnam to "take old clothes and shoes back to sell," so he agreed to participate.

However, sometime later, Okonkwo realized he was actually engaged in a cross-border drug trafficking network. Even though he knew his job was illegal, he couldn't overcome the temptation of money. According to the verdict, when his ring was busted, Okonkwo was transporting more than 430 grams of cocaine.

Okonkwo in Thu Duc Prison. Photo by VnExpress/ Quoc Thang

Okonkwo in Thu Duc Prison. Photo by VnExpress/ Quoc Thang

To help the prisoner, Lieutenant Colonel Trung regularly talks to him and teaches him Vietnamese. The officer listens to the prisoner’s thoughts and analyzes his word. During the interactions, he has realized that behind Okonkwo‘s "big and strong" appearance, he’s actually lived a very emotional life. In early 2022, when consulate staff informed Okonkwo of his father's death, he cried like a child and stopped eating and drinking for days.

"I confided in him, encouraged him, and asked him to think of his mother and other relatives," Lieutenant Colonel Trung said. "Since then, Okonkwo has revived his spirit and motivation, and he has tried to reform. He is hoping to have his sentence reduced soon so he can return to his homeland and take care of his elderly mother,"

For the Lunar New Year holidays (Tet) from Feb. 8-14, Thu Duc Prison proposed reducing the prison sentences of 1,985 prisoners. During the holiday, the prison gives each prisoner 5 times more food than usual and organizes entertainment, arts, and sports activities to create a joyful atmosphere during Tet.

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