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Women start life anew in prison
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-03-25 08:54

Kang Yuefei, a 28-year-old woman serving a three-year prison term for embezzlement, never expected she could serve as the beautician for fellow inmates at the Nanjing Women's Prison.

She got 90 per cent on the final exam after taking a two-month beautician training course in the jail and was presented with a basic certificate qualifying her to work in beauty salons when she gets out of prison.

"I feel rewarded and respected when my clients say 'thank you' to me," says Kang.

"Although I am serving time for breaking the law, I have not been deprived of my dignity here."

Kang is one of the 12 beauticians in the prison who are classed as grade-B inmates because of their better-than-average behaviour. Inmates in the prison who behave well are entitled to a facial or body massage once a week.

This is one of the humanization reforms, introduced by the Ministry of Justice in February 2003, in the jails of a number of pilot provinces and municipalities, including Jiangsu, Heilongjiang, Jiangxi, Hubei, Chongqing, Shaanxi, Shanghai and Beijing.

"The reforms aim to weaken the prison's function as an institute of punishment while strengthening its role as an agent of rehabilitation and ensuring prisoners' rights," says Du Zhongxing, director of the Prison Department with the Ministry of Justice.

Nanjing Women's Prison was established in 2003 to deal with the re-education of women convicts, according to Wu Xiaofeng, political instructor at the prison. Of the 1,300 inmates in the prison, 26.7 per cent serving time for prostitution offenses, while 19 per cent are in for felonies, including murder, according to the head warden Mao Jun. There are a number of inmates who were convicted of financial offenses, including fraud, embezzlement and bribery, she said. The rest of the inmates are in for a wide array of offenses, from picking pockets to stealing bicycles.

According to Beijing-based Legal Daily, 29,000 women have been charged with drug trafficking, robbery, murder and other crimes in the past five years, up 13 per cent a year on average, and are confined in 31 women's prisons nationwide.

"In the past, prisoners were regarded as society's scum. However, now, under the law, prisoners are simply those who have done something that violates the law," says Mao Jun.

"Prisoners should pay for their wrongdoings, but this does not mean that they are not human or that they are inferior to others. Their dignity should be respected."

To promote the exchange of experience and ideas on how to combine strict law enforcement with humane rehabilitation, China held its first national seminar on honouring prisoners' human rights in Nanjing last September. The seminar was significant, given that jail is where human rights are openly restricted and prisoners' rights are easily neglected, says Zhu Muzhi, president of the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

Female prisoners are more sensitive than their male counterparts, Mao says. Seemingly trivial things, such as how they are addressed and the colour and style of the jail uniform, can upset them. Therefore, "they should be treated differently."

Wardens in the Nanjing Women's Prison never call an inmate a "criminal" or "prisoner." They either call them "persons serving prison terms" or directly address them by name. The identification card worn by inmates used to include the crimes they had committed, but now such words have been removed. The card only states their behaviour grade, name and number.

The women inmates in the jail have to wear prison uniforms year round. Yet Nanjing is notorious for its sweltering heat in summer. For the sake of the women's health, the jail last year introduced a specially designed summer uniform - a white polo shirt and creamy, calf-length baggy pants. So clothed, the women look more feminine, little different from women on the streets outside the prison. And they are also allowed to put on light makeup when meeting their family members.

"This enables them to see hope in themselves and helps them cope with their time in confinement better," says Wu Xiaofeng.

It works for Di Huiyu. The 32-year-old is serving time for fraud. She says, "When I get skin care treatments in the beauty salon and when I put on makeup before meeting my parents, I strongly feel I am a real woman, and still have a future."

She recalls how relieved her aged parents are each time they see her in high spirits. "All of this urges me to better abide by the law and discipline myself so as to reenter society sooner."

One of the important things in the jail is allowing the inmates to maintain social contacts. If this were not allowed, they wouldn't know how to merge into society again, says Mao Jun. "After getting out of here, they might either think they were unfairly restrained in the prison, thus wanting to take revenge on society, or they might feel abased, hardly able to make a living outside. We just want them to know that they can return to a normal life once they are released."

Each prisoner is like a caged tiger. who needs a transitional stage before being set free in the wild, Wu Xiaofeng says. "The social contacts serve as that stage, arousing the inmates' conscience and sense of social belonging. It's important to give prisoners proper social training so that they can feel useful again when they reenter society."

Inmates organized

On weekends, the inmates are organized to take care of elderly people at local nursing homes. When going into the community, the prisoners can wear their own blouses with the uniform trousers to avoid unnecessary embarrassment.

Moreover, the prison also mobilizes social groups to participate in the correction of inmates. It has forged good connections with local community groups. Psychologists from local universities are invited to give lectures to the inmates to solve some of their psychological problems. Also, lectures on women's health and psychology are given regularly.

Like their counterparts in other prisons, women convicts here also have to learn some legal knowledge, given that most criminals are ignorant of the law. The first thing they are required to do when they enter the jail is to spend two months studying the nation's laws, including Criminal Law, Criminal Procedural Law, and Prison Law and the Manual for Persons Serving Prison Terms in order to acquaint them with their rights and obligations.

"Nearly 90 per cent of the women here don't arrive crying peccavi; they just think it was bad luck that got them thrown into jail. Without knowing the law, they can easily vent their anger and frustration on the jail." says Mao Jun, adding "only the law can eventually help them start all over again."

After studying the law, all inmates are very clear about their rights of personal integrity and safety and the right to own property as well as 18 other rights, including their right to defence, to appeal, to communication with people outside, to receiving visitors and to study, according to Mao Jun.

Zhou Jing, 29, serving a life sentence, had no idea that a prisoner has the right to her own image until she studied the Criminal Law. As a result, she says "I rejected the request of a foreign journalist to take my photo, because I don't want my image to appear in a foreign newspaper."

In fact, the journalist asked the jail first to arrange the photo-taking. But the jail told him that it was the prisoner's right to say yes or no.

The jail in a way is a purgatory, through which those who have done damage to society can be redeemed.

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