Prison: A Family Thing


What was the worst thing that happened to you as a thirteen year old? Most of us were just testing our independence and trying to escape the hand holding of our parents.

What if your biggest problem as a thirteen year old was being separated from your family and put in jail? And what if you had no idea how long you would be in there and if the rest of your family was being treated well?

Let’s take a second to recap what’s happened with my dad and his family so far. They struggled to maintain their freedom and their business during the Vietnam War. Knowing that they would never be able to grow and be free under a communist regime, they decided to escape the country. They managed to get on a boat and head toward Malaysia, but almost immediately hit a storm and couldn’t keep their boat afloat. After three days of bailing water, they all resigned to dying at sea. But at the last moment, a Bulgarian ship came by and rescued them. The rescue was short-lived, because instead of delivering them to Singapore, they put my dad and his family right back into the hands of Vietnamese communists, where they were put in jail immediately.

“I remember I stayed in that prison with a lot of political prisoners, where they’re all shaved. Those guys were so pale because they’ve been kept for so long, and I got to share a room with so many people. I forgot how many people now.”

The prison was so crowded that there was barely any room to sleep, and beds aren’t even a part of this story. At night, all the prisoners were given shackles to put around their ankles, and from outside the cell, the jailers ran a long metal pin through all the shackles. Prisoners slept with their feet tied above them, shackled to their cell door so they can’t move at all through the night. In the morning, they were unshackled and allowed to go to the bathroom, but the rest of their time was spent inside their cell.

“They have two meals. At 5 o’clock in the morning, I have one little bowl of rice, and a little bit of vegetables with whatever is in the river. Whatever pond they scoop up -- a little green moss or whatever. They cook it like that, they didn’t clean. You eat like that at 5 o’clock in the morning and then at 5 o’clock in the evening, they give you another little bowl. So you survive. You are very hungry all the time. So you have two meals -- two bowls of rice in the morning and the evening. That’s it.”

The rest of my dad’s family was in the same prison, but they were all separated. My uncle, just sixteen at the time, and my grandfather were put in what sounds like solitary confinement.

“They throw him and my father in a little room, there’s no light at all -- I don’t know what they call it. They put him and my father in there, one next to the other. They stayed in there for awhile. I think Uncle Thang stayed in there for two weeks. I don’t know how long my dad stayed in there, I don’t remember.

“They run out of space and that’s where you go to, I guess. They just, they want to separate all of us out, they don’t want us to stay together. So whatever space is open, they’ll put you in there instead of based on the crime that you commit.

“I was very scared. Every now and then, I saw my dad. They let him out to take a shower. There’s a well outside my window. There’s a chain over the well and you pull it up and take a shower. And I saw my dad take a shower a couple times, so I knew he was alright, you know? That was it, that was the only time I saw him.”

My dad was in jail for two or three weeks and then released with his mom, one of his sisters, one of his brothers, and his three-month old nephew. His brother who was put in solitary confinement was released after 8-12 months. His father stayed in prison for many years. My dad would be living in the US with a wife and baby on the way before his saw his dad as a free man again.

“We were released and then taken back to our hometown. And our hometown, we were the first to escape the country. My father was one of the richest men in town, so they wanted to use him as an example, so they sentenced him very tough, to set an example. And that’s why my father stayed in there for so long.”

My dad and his family lived in Saigon for a year after being in jail. During that time, he went back to visit his dad in jail, but soon they would face another significant separation because my dad and his family...well, they were going to try to escape the country again.