By Stuart Schrader, author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing

July 17, 2020

Fifty years ago today, Life magazine printed photographs taken inside a prison on an island off the coast of Vietnam called Côn Sơn.

The photos depicted a wing of a former French colonial prison that held prisoners in pit-like recessed concrete boxes measuring five by nine feet — too short for most people to stand in. Around 300 men and 200 women, including at least one fifteen-year-old girl, were locked in these cramped, brutal “tiger cages.”

The Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, operated this prison under close advisement of the United States. In fact, this prison was part of the mass incarceration system that Vietnam built in the 1960s, with the help of U.S. law-enforcement experts and funding from the CIA. The prison on Côn Sơn island held accused Vietnamese Communists, along with many persecuted ethnic and religious minorities and people arrested for peaceful political dissidence. Although most were not kept in the tiger cages, general conditions were deplorable. Illness and disease were endemic, lizards and insects rampant. Malnourishment was common. From the catwalks between those cages, guards tossed quick lime, a chemical that caused painful skin burns, on prisoners who complained. Many former prisoners reported that they were beaten, held in manacles, and denied medical care.

U.S. advisors did not stop these abuses.

No member of Congress or the U.S. public was supposed to lay eyes on the tiger cages. But in 1970, a U.S. delegation visited South Vietnam. At the time, the fate of the U.S. war effort was uncertain. President Richard Nixon had campaigned on a promise to bring the war to a close. A year into his first term, he hoped to ascertain whether “pacification”—a combined security and development initiative—was trending toward success. His opponents and supporters in Congress also wondered how the war was going. The select committee delegation of ten members was organized to assess the situation on the ground.

When the delegation arrived to the island, Frank Walton, a U.S. advisor who was previously a high-ranking Los Angeles Police Department officer, boasted that the inspection would reveal a facility with better conditions than prisons at home. (That may actually have been true.) But Tom Harkin, a congressional aide, and Don Luce, a humanitarian volunteer who translated for the delegation, had learned from an ex-prisoner how to locate the hidden area of the prison containing the tiger cages. They were appalled by the conditions they witnessed.

But the delegation’s official report on the trip minimized the abusive prison conditions. Harkin then decided to leak the photos. Incensed at the “whitewash,” he felt compelled to bear witness to the violations he saw. The infamous photos ran in Life.

After the Life article, outrage back home mounted rapidly. The war was already unpopular. Many voters did not quite grasp, however, that the war meant holding teenage girls in overcrowded prisons because they were suspected “Communists.”

Protesters began to reference the tiger cages. They erected cages outside the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Manhattan and in a public plaza in Baltimore. Activists in Boston locked themselves inside a mock tiger cage for a week of daily vigils. In London, activists set up a wooden cage outside the office of a private contractor hired to build new detention facilities. They invited passers-by to step inside their cage and experience confinement. This street theater encouraged new forms of international solidarity.

Prisoners in the United States also recognized the parallels with their own experience, underpinned by racism on a global scale. Wendell Wade, a Black Panther Party member locked in Tehachapi state prison, wrote that the majority of California’s Black prisoners were held in facilities like San Quentin, a prison that “readily resembles” the “Tiger Cages on Côn Sơn Island.” One of the U.S. advisors on the island, in fact, had been an administrator at San Quentin before deploying to Vietnam. But another advisor informed his superiors that however bad things were on Côn Sơn, no Vietnamese prison had experienced conditions like in San Quentin or a revolt like in Attica. (The 1968 rebellion of Black prisoners in a U.S. military stockade outside Sài Gòn called Long Binh Jail was another story.)

Activists urged legislators to investigate the plight of political prisoners in Vietnam, and the revelations stunned voters. The ninety-third Congress (1973–1975), spurred by this activism, used the findings of its own members and staff as fuel for change.

After the January 1973 peace agreement, Congress soon defunded the war effort. U.S. troops would be fully withdrawn from South Vietnam in 1975. But before then, U.S. police and prison advisors to Vietnam were sent packing. By the end of 1973, incited by the tiger cages and other outrages, Congress voted to shut down the Office of Public Safety, which operated all the U.S. assistance programs to police and prisons of other countries. As I explain in Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, 52 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America had received public safety aid; South Vietnam garnered the most, costing over $235 million ($1.35 billion today). Brazil, Jordan, Liberia, and Thailand, among others, all received prison assistance.

This episode in 1970 added a new dimension focused on decarceration to the existing peace movement, in turn launching the modern campaign to place “human rights” at the center of U.S. policy. As described, this campaign scored rapid success by defunding the U.S. program that advised the prison authorities in South Vietnam. Harkin himself would be elected to the House in 1975 and the Senate a decade later, serving through 2014. Along with Senator Patrick Leahy, Harkin helped design quiet humanitarian principles for foreign aid, ordering the cessation of security assistance to known abusers of human rights and conditioning food aid on protection of human rights.

Yet despite these changes, U.S. efforts to protect human rights abroad ever since have been inconsistent, incomplete, and insincere. In fact, new variants of the Cold War–era advisory program exist, as U.S. experts continue to assist and support police and prison systems around the globe.

Today, reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the tiger cage revelation, it is difficult not to see its cruel echo in the society that killed George Floyd and that has detained migrant children, separating them from their parents at the border. Harkin’s visual record of abuse at the hands of the state, like the excruciating 9-minute video of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police five decades later, galvanized activists to demand better of the United States, to demand transformation.

The current Black Lives Matter protests, like ongoing campaigns to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, also reflect the importance of bearing witness — as Tom Harkin did. Last year, members of Congress even replicated the visit to Côn Sơn when they ascended a ladder near a private detention facility in Florida to peer over its walls when they were barred from accessing it. But they have yet to defund ICE or even to say much about the abomination of mass incarceration.

If the United States has relinquished its moral authority around the globe thanks to these outrages, then the mobilizations of protesters offer hope for a new ethical compact where state violence—at home, abroad, and at the border in between—is rare and exceptional, and human rights are not ornamental. The protests have been visionary, by demanding that the United States put its resources and creativity not toward honing the machinery of police and prisons to be more effective but toward abolishing this machinery and replacing it with something else: freedom.

At the very least, because Congress does not directly control local police forces or state prisons in the United States, it could place conditions on its funding assistance, as Harkin ensured it would abroad. Domestic assistance should be terminated if there is evidence of what the State Department calls (overseas) “gross violations of human rights.”

The revelation of the tiger cages of Côn Sơn demonstrated how lawmakers can turn public outrage into decisive legislative action. To protect human rights in Vietnam and elsewhere, Congress defunded the U.S. advisory program to police and prisons overseas, along with the broader war effort itself.

Although inadequate and incomplete, this defunding roadmap should be revived. Lawmakers must now follow that path that leads from overseas fifty years ago back home today, while also installing the demand to defund instruments of state violence into foreign policy.

Today, thanks to smartphones, we are all bearing witness. Defunding is the next step for lawmakers, but the journey must lead to collective liberation.