China / Cover Story

Redemption from within

By Wei Tian (China Daily) Updated: 2014-08-29 07:32

Redemption from within

Senior inmates at Nanhui Prison practicing tai chi on Aug 15. Tai chi has become a regular part of their daily life. PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY


Redemption from within


Reporter's Log
Wei Tian
Beyond the cage

The moment I learned that I would be joining a media tour of several detention centers and prisons in Shanghai, ominous images popped out immediately in my head: prisoners with sinister smiles, ferocious prison guards, and a beastly warden hiding under human form.

Yes, these are what prisons can be made to look like in Hollywood movies.

But would it really be surprising that prisons in developing countries could be something like these? Or even worse? I asked myself.

I was wrong.

"Be prepared to be amazed. The conditions might be better than what you had in your college dormitory," our tour guide told me.

Indeed, there were air conditioners and refrigerators in the prisons.

But as prepared as I could be, some details in there still caught my attention.

For one thing, I did not expect an online shopping screen in every cell and a peacock in the garden for prisoners' outdoor exercise sessions.

The biggest surprise I received came from the people or, more precisely, the behavior of everyone inside.

Yes, the prison guards looked mighty and powerful, with their eyes sweeping across every inmate as we toured the premises, their hands on the weapons on their waists, ready to react to any emergency.

But the way they talked to elderly prisoners was just like how genial local police officers answered seniors' inquiries in the neighborhood. Similarly, when giving orders to the younger inmates, the guards seemed like they were speaking to the naughty children of their neighbors.

"They are just normal people who did one thing wrong. Without that, they are just like us, they deserve no less respect," one of the guards said.

None of the three prison wardens I met were potbellied or dressed in suits like a plantation owner. They looked no different in a uniform from their capable and well-experienced prison officers.

I remember one warden talking to a prisoner in a counseling room: both sitting in chairs, relaxed and chatting as if they were in a teahouse.

"You say nice things here, I know what you'll say behind my back," the warden teased the prisoner.

"No, not this time, I promise," the prisoner replied. They both laughed.

I also talked to several prisoners. One word I read in their eyes was "peaceful" - whether when talking about the crime they committed or describing their vision for the future.

There is a popular line from the 1994 Hollywood prison movie The Shawshank Redemption about the walls of the prison:

"First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them."

But that view seemed different from those of some of the prisoners I met in Shanghai. They recognized why they were in there and knew where they were going because they were given hope, and a way to get to their destinations.

Maybe it is more suitable to quote another line from the movie to describe what was on the Chinese inmates' minds: "Some birds don't mean to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright."

Nanhui Prison, which was opened in July 2007, is the first in the country to hold elderly inmates and prisoners with disabilities. In terms of facilities, it is equivalent to a second-grade hospital. Food for inmates is also low-fat and easy to digest to cater to the prison population. There are more than 30 hospitalized prisoners in Nanhui Prison, many of which have cancer.

"Most of them are abandoned by their families and thus are not eligible for medical parole, and some of them even asked for euthanasia," said Wang Yi, head of the Nanhui Prison.

"What we can do is provide them with patience and attention in addition to daily treatment, as part of their last company when their final moments arrive," Wang said.

For most senior prisoners, life behind bars gives them a chance to treat not only their body, but also their soul.

"Ironically, some of the corrupt officials who used to suffer from hypertension have found themselves cured after serving a few years in prison," Wang said.

Liu Bo, 66, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for crimes related to abuse of power. The former official with the Shanghai transport authority said he is "finally at ease".

"The social life I had out there wasn't really what I wanted. In here, I can cultivate myself more."

Liu said he now gets up at half past five every morning, practice some tai chi, watch some news and do some work. But his favorite activity is to study ancient Chinese classics such as the I Ching and write columns for a newspaper published by the inmates.

The calligraphy and paintings by prisoners that adorn Nanhui Prison makes it seem like a nursing home. But the nameplates at the cells point to the corruption or violent crimes that some of the grey-haired men were involved in.

"Never say it's too late, for the view of sunset is still magnificent," read one of the pieces of calligraphy, quoting an ancient Chinese poem.

At Wujiaochang Prison, inmates are given many opportunities to improve themselves for their return to society.

Established in 1952, Wujiaochang Prison used to be a labor camp specializing in making spanners. Its products were cheap and reliable, dominating the Chinese market for years.

The formerly well-known factory has since been turned into a vocational-type facility. The plant has been renovated into classrooms with production facilities replaced by work simulators.

"The most popular training programs include those for plumbers, electricians, car-cleaners and chefs," said Hu Guozhong, head of the Wujiaochang Prison.

"I chose electrician training because I am planning to open a small shop in my hometown," said Zhao Chuang, a 38-year-old Wujiaochang prisoner who is completing his seven-year sentence and is set for release in October.

Zhao said he was also taking business and legal courses. He takes part in the prison's simulation scenarios such as those for banks, police stations and tax bureaus, to familiarize himself with life outside.

Despite all the preparation, Zhao said he is worried that he will be alienated from society when he gets out.

"I read in the newspapers and saw on TV that there is this WeChat thing that everyone is using. I'd really like to try it," said Zhao, referring to the social-networking app.

By June, a total of 1,058 former prisoners of Wujiaochang Prison had received skills training and found their place in society.

A survey by Shanghai's prison system showed that less than 3 percent of them had recommitted an offense. The figure for those who had not received such training was three times as high.

(As required by the Prison Management Bureau, all the prisoners did not use their real names.)

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