There has been an angry public reaction to the revelation that inmates from a prison near Ho Chi Minh City were forced to work on the construction of a house for a senior prison officer.
Some 20 prisoners in striped prison uniforms were seen working at the house of Colonel Ho Phi Thang, the senior officer at camp Z30A in Xuan Loc.
Local people saw the prisoners being transported daily to the site by van and became so concerned that they informed the Tuoi Tre newspaper, which brought the case to public attention.
Thang was quoted as admitting that it was “repugnant” that prisoners were working at his house and conceded that “no regulations allow prison officers to take prisoners to work at construction sites outside the camp.”
He said that fellow officers at the camp had taken the initiative to express gratitude to him as he nears retirement after 40 years service.
He said that he ordered the work to cease once the newspaper came out.
That didn’t stop a wave of public criticism on social media, with Colonel Thang accused of abusing his power. Many said he had intentionally ignored laws and exploited prisoners for his own interests. There were also allegations that similar cases are commonplace across the country.
“In most prison camps, prisoners who serve light and short sentences, or will be released in the near future, are very often asked to offer private services to prison officers,” said one former prisoner who declined to be identified.
One Tuoi Tre reader, Luan Ta Vo, said 20 prisoners had worked for ten days at the house. He estimated that Colonel Thang could have saved 60 million dong, more than $2000, by using their labour. “This is a way for prison officers to get rich by exploiting prisoners’ work despite their small salaries,” he said.
Nguyen Bac Truyen, a former prisoner who now dedicates himself to political and religious prisoners, said the incident exposes a struggle for power amongst prison officers. He said that officers had to pay a large sum in order to secure the post of prison governor.
It is rare for such scandals in the public sector to be highlighted by the media, despite the suspicion that there is widespread abuse and a culture in which junior officers are also required to provide private services for their seniors.
On June 10, local media reported that officials from Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs “were invited to attend a house-warming party” during normal office hours at the home of Le Minh Tan, the department’s director. Officials travelled in 50 blue-plated cars from the city and two other provinces.
Tan, the newly appointed director, was quoted as saying that he had invited staff members to his home to discuss departmental issues.
Members of the public at the time were told that staff were busy having meetings and couldn’t deal with their problems. It was later found out by the city inspectorate that Tan and his employees were all at the party.
By Joseph Nguyen, a freelance journalist writing on social and religious issues in Vietnam