Zinoman, Peter. The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940. Pantheon Books, 2001.
The portrait Peter Zinoman paints of French colonial prisons in Vietnam conforms to the popular image of third world prisons as dirty, dangerous, and corrupt. Prisoners accused or convicted of various types of crimes arrived at a prison, were shuffled in with other inmates willy-nilly, records were lost or incomplete, prisoners were punished capriciously, and prison life and regulations changed with each administrator. None of these indictments of French administration are unexpected. Zinoman, however, goes further to demonstrate that the mish-mash of French administration of the prisons in the disparate parts of Indochina led to the development of a Vietnamese national identity and the emergence of the Indochina Communist Party as the dominant anti-colonial force by the end of the 1930s.
The roots of this development lie in two key areas: the manner in which Indochina fell under French domination, and the origins of the prison system. The main divisions of Vietnam were Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. Of these three areas, the French colonial government only directly administered Cochin China in the south. Annam and Tonkin, in the central and northern parts of Vietnam, were designated protectorates, with Annam officially under the control of the Vietnamese imperial government. This led to lack of direct control over courts and prisons throughout the region, meaning that French administrations could not establish standard rules and regulations governing prisons. Lack of funding to adequately build, maintain and staff prisons also created an environment in which Indochinese prisons did not conform to nineteenth and twentieth century ideals of reform of prisoners, but adopted the older European standard of prison as punishment only.
The origins of the prison system itself contributed to the problem of prison as punishment since the system of colonial prisons was initially established to contain prisoners of war captured by French troops during their 1860s conquest of Cochin China. Prisons designed to control and contain enemy soldiers also eventually housed common criminals and political prisoners all in one loosely regulated environment. The shared experience of brutality of French and Vietnamese jailors created a shared experience of hardship and bonding that united Indochinese across lines of ethnicity, geography, and social class. Zinoman argues that this shared experience created the first pan-Vietnamese conception of national identity, an absolute requirement for a successful campaign to gain national independence in the twentieth century.
Increased anti-colonial agitation in Vietnam during the 1930s by nationalist, communist, and other radical groups resulted in a dramatic influx of political prisoners into Vietnamese prisons. While all parties suffered casualties among leaders, all were incarcerated in the same prison environments. Howver, Zinoman argues, the Leninist organizational and propagandizing orientation allowed it to expand and flourish in captivity, reaching deep into the community of common criminals that surrounded them. Nationalists, on the other hand, had no such background of discipline and organization to draw upon, and their organizations withered in the prison environment.
The result, according to Zinoman, was the creation of a Vietnamese national identity based on the brutality of the prison experienced shared by thousands of inmates, documented in newspapers, and witnessed by friends and families of the incarcerated. The ICP, and later the VCP, used the prison environment to extend its organization beyond intellectuals to embrace peasants and laborers. Communists also later relied on prison memoirs as credentials to show their dedication and revolutionary past, enhancing their standing as opponents of the French.