During the investigation period most prisoners of conscience are held in isolation in pre-trial detention centers, either in solitary confinement or with a cellmate (sometimes referred to as “antennae”), whose duty is to monitor and report on them for prison authorities.
Democracy activist Nguyen Ngoc Quang, who spent 25 months in pre-trial detention, much of it in solitary confinement, described the impact: “They use solitary confinement to coerce the prisoners, to make them feel that their lives are unbearable, unimaginable, so they have to make a statement or a confession in order to be set free. This crime is very systematic. This is a coercive technique. Furthermore, to terrorize me mentally, they would take me out in the middle of the night for investigation.”
At B-14 detention center in Hanoi, prisoners are moved to cells on the fourth floor as a punitive measure for those who fail to cooperate with prison authorities and to break their resistance. While other floors are better insulated, the walls on the fourth floor are made of metal sheets that make it unbearably hot in summer. During the time human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai spent in isolation at B-14 — right before his charge sheet changed from Article 88 to Article 79 in July 2017 — he was held in the fourth floor, where after five or six days he started developing skin rashes that took a month and a half to disappear.
Prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days can amount to torture and other acts prohibited by the ICCPR and the Convention against Torture. As a form of psychological torture prohibited by UNCAT, prolonged solitary confinement can be as debilitating as physical forms of torture, causing mental pain and suffering, trauma, and long-lasting post-traumatic effects.
In several detention centers, inmates are never allowed outside of their cells. At PA-24 detention center in Ho Chi Minh City, detainees in Sections C-1 and C-2 were not permitted to use the small open-air exercise spaces attached to their cells when Nguyen Van Hai (Dieu Cay) was held there.
“The windowless cells at PA-24, covered by a steel roof, get extremely hot,” he told CAT-VN after his release from prison. “From 12 to 2 pm, if you touch the wall you can feel the heat, even through the concrete. Only around 11 pm does the heat subside. It’s only then you feel you can breathe a bit. At noontime, it’s so hot that the steel roof crackles as it expands and contracts in the heat.” The only air in the cells comes from a small vent (15 x 30 cm) in the iron door for food delivery. Large windows with bars at PA-24 have been covered by steel sheets with holes drilled into them. “The corners of the cells lack oxygen,” Nguyen Van Hai said. “People there are in a perpetual dazed state, not really awake, not really sleeping.”
At Chi Hoa Prison in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Van Hai was not allowed to leave his cell during the five months he was imprisoned there, except for one 30-minute meeting with his lawyer. “I stayed inside the cell night and day. My skin became green and translucent because there was no sunlight. I was not allowed to shave and my hair grew long. There wasn’t enough water, so we took turns washing. Once every three days I could shower.”
At B-34 detention center in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Van Hai was held in solitary confinement in a windowless cell in Section D for five and a half months. The only air in his cell came from a 30-cm long slot at the top of the wall and a smaller slot (20 x 15 cm) cut into the solid steel door of the cell, through which guards pushed his food. “To get air I had to lie crossway on the platform, next to the toilet, so that my head was near the steel door. If I tilted slightly at the wrong angle, the lack of oxygen could put me in a daze. When I sat up I had to do so slowly, otherwise I was dizzy," Nguyen Van Hai said.