When news broke last month that a prison inmate had managed to avoid the death penalty by getting pregnant, the authorities were quick to come up with an explanation.
State media reported that Nguyen Thi Hue had persuaded a male inmate to supply her with a plastic bag of his semen and a syringe with which to inseminate herself.
Pregnant women, and those with children under the age of three, cannot be executed in Vietnam. Hue’s sentence is understood to have been commuted.
The official story, however, has not convinced everyone. Campaigners for prison reform and former political prisoners say that corruption is rife in prisons and that women in the past have paid guards to have sex with them or allow them to have sex with other inmates.
Some question the likelihood of successful self-insemination as sperm would not survive for long in a plastic bag.
Hue had been on death row in the northern province of Quang Ninh since 2014 when she was convicted of drug smuggling.
State media reported that four prison officers had been suspended over the case.
They had blamed crowded conditions at the prison. They said there was not enough space in solitary confinement cells for the 80 death row prisoners and some were being held with other prisoners.
Death row inmates are supposed to be kept in separate cells with their feet shackled, said Nguyen Bac Truyen, an activist who served a five-year jail sentence in four different prisons. Only prison wardens and cleaners, who are prisoners themselves, are officially allowed to enter the cells, he said.
However, anything is possible if prisoners bribe the guards, he added.
Truyen said that women who wanted to have sex with guards or cleaners could probably arrange it, even if they had to offer bribes.
Treated like animals
He said that when he was in Chi Hoa prison in Ho Chi Minh City, he heard stories that female inmates were raped by guards. He was told they did not dare go public with their complaints for fear of reprisals.
Truyen said prisoners, including those serving life sentences, can live relatively free and comfortable lives if they have enough money. Their family members can visit them any time, they can live in their own houses in prison areas, and they can also visit their homes.
“It is the poor prisoners who are treated like animals,” he added.
Prison officers sometimes have to pay their superiors to gain promotion, he alleged, and they can make a fortune from prisoners who want better treatment and early release.
In a previous case, in 2006, two female inmates avoided the death penalty by offering bribes to guards and getting pregnant with male inmates.
By Joseph Nguyen, a freelance journalist writing on social and religious issues in Vietnam.