Illiterate convicts serving lengthy terms at a major southern Vietnamese prison must learn to read and write the Vietnamese language, and several of them have done this sincerely out of the desire to pen letters to their family to tell them they have changed for the better.
About two decades ago, a now-83-year-old woman named L.T.H.T. was sentenced to 20 years in prison for theft but she showed no repentance and managed to escape from jail.
Having led a fugitive life for a decade, she was put behind bars again for theft with an additional 15 years of incarceration at the Xuan Loc Penitentiary in Dong Nai, a large neighbor of Ho Chi Minh City.
It was only a year ago, at 82, when the senior began actively learning to read after long refusing to receive education on grounds of ill health and age, although the prison’s illiteracy-abolishing program is compulsory.
She wanted to write letters, an ability possessed by many of her inmates.
“I felt sad when seeing other prisoners read letters and write to home while I couldn’t do that,” T. recalled.
Her decision, which took prison wardens aback, was reached after much vacillation.
“I stayed sleepless many nights due to an internal conflict. On the one hand I thought I was too old to study, but on the other I wanted to be able to simply read and write my name.”
T. experienced disappointment caused by frequent poor performances but she made efforts with some assistance from other convicts who often witnessed her study alone at an upended box used as a table.
The woman said whenever succeeding in deciphering letters sent to prison by former inmates telling coziness with their family, she felt more motivated to write well prior to her release date.
“When I’m freed, I’ll also give encouraging letters to those still staying in prison,” she said, adding that literacy could make her redeem herself in the social community.
Another woman, D.T.S.R., who is serving a ten-year term for stealing her parents-in-law’s property, was scourged by so much guilt that she always wanted to pen an apologetic letter the first time in her life.
“I set myself the big goal of writing a letter saying sorry to my mother for my wrongdoing.”
The 37-year-old is now able to produce quite beautiful handwriting and read fluently, which has helped her understand books borrowed from the prison library.
“My mom must not have thought the letter had been written by me. But she will believe that I have changed. I’ll become a good person at the end of the punishment.”
A man known as T.T.H., 27, trod a similar learning path to literacy and has sent home three letters he made.
“The first word I learned was ‘ME’ [mother]. I took a week to finish an apologetic letter to my mom,” said the man, who is receiving a 17-year prison term for murder under alcoholic influence.
In the above cases the convicts were uneducated, but in the Xuan Loc Penitentiary a number of inmates are erstwhile professionals and now read books quite avidly to the extent that they have never reached outside the prison confines.
A case in point is K.N.A., a former deputy bank executive, who said he had spent the first days in prison in dejection and initially read books with the urge to turn to a new page as early as possible.
But he later perused books carefully, willing to stop for room of rumination.
“Unlike what I did when I was a college student or worker, I’ve now finished reading entire books,” he said.