6. NGUYEN THI THO

Conditions in Diem's Prisons

In March 1957, I was transferred from Thu Dau Mot prison to that of Gia Dinh and the following month I was sent to Paulo Condore. There were 400 prisoners on our boat, including twenty-four women, of whom two were over sixty, and two babies of one year and six months. The total number of prisoners on the island while I was there ranged from 4,000 to 8,000 including common-law offenders, about 100 women and four children under one year.
     At the time I arrived in Paulo Condore, prisoners were gradually being killed off. They were not being killed outright, but the treatment was so terrible, with not enough food or water, not even enough air because of the frightful overcrowding in the cells, and with no medical care at all, prisoners were just dying of exhaustion and disease.
     For the first two days after my arrival, I was detained in a fairly large room with enough food and water. On the third day, Captain Nam, deputy head at Paulo Condore, explained the prison regime. He said:
In Paulo Condore, the number killed equals the number of bricks used in building the prison. This island is far from the mainland, far from your friends. There's nobody here to protect you. Paulo Condore prison applies US policy to gradually kill all those who refuse to denounce Communism, who refuse to respect President Ngo Dinh Diem, who refuse to learn how to denounce Communists and who oppose US presence in South Vietnam. There are thousands of sick, already dying, prisoners here. I advise you not to follow their road.
That evening Captain Nam gave each of us a prepared statement of our willingness to break with Communism and tried to compel us to sign them. We refused and were beaten up and then taken to our cells, four to each cell. These latter were built by the French colonialists to hold one person each in solitary confinement. On three sides are stone-and-concrete walls about eighteen inches thick with a concrete roof. There was a two-and-a{229}half-inch-thick door with a small air hole in it of about an inch in diameter. Above the door was another hole about two feet long and a foot wide, covered with an iron grille, hermetically closed when we arrived. There was another small hole connecting the cell to an outside latrine. The cell itself was about six feet square with a bench five feet long and a little over one foot wide, where one person could lie down. There was no lighting at all and all ventilation was blocked except for the hole leading to the outside latrine. The warders brought in a two-gallon latrine bucket which was emptied once a week.
     After fifteen minutes in the cell, it was impossible to breathe. The fetid stench from the latrine was stifling. Drops of water stood out on the black stone walls. The heat was terrible, sweat poured down our bodies. We soon had to take off our clothes and cut our long hair, but even so the heat was unendurable.
     At first we were four in our cell, then eight and finally twelve in this same tiny cell. There were many cases of asphyxiation. We waged a struggle for more air, shouting and screaming until the warders had to open the door. Within three minutes those that had fainted came to again.
     Our daily ration was two bowls of rice, of which about a third was unhusked, two spoonfuls of salted water and just under half a pint of drinking water. There was no water at all for washing.
     In front of the door passed a foul-smelling canal leading from the latrine. The rice was set down alongside this canal before being given to us, and we watched the flies and blowflies crawling over it before we had to eat it. We never once saw real white rice. It was impossible not to vomit after getting it down. There were cases of cholera and dysentery.
     For four months we were never allowed to wash or bathe. We were filthy. During menstruation we could only stand against the wall and let the blood flow out, sometimes collapsing into our own blood.
     We suffered like this in the cell for ten months. Everybody became weak and exhausted, our skins grew pallid. Some of the women could not move their legs, we were suffering from intestinal and nervous ailments, from malarian ulcers, inflammation of the uterus... we looked like skeletons. Some of us were at death's door when people on the mainland started a campaign protesting {230} the detention of women in Paulo Condore, demanding that the US-Diem clique bring us back to the mainland. As a result we were transferred to a building known as `Death Prison' where we were given better food for two months and then shipped back to the mainland.
     As far as the regular prisoners at Paulo Condore are concerned, about 200 are detained in one room which was so cramped that for every four inmates there was an average of ten square feet in which to sit or lie down. Prisoners were detained for years on end under such conditions. Food and water supply was the same as I mentioned above. Usually after one year of this, prisoners die from exhaustion, malnutrition and disease. Once a year they are allowed to bathe in the sea, most of them so weak when they move out that they looked like skeletons, hardly able to drag themselves along ...
 

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