Hard story to cell

Prisoner dies from “nightmare”

Hard story to cell

Andy Dufresne found a way to stay in the prison guards’ better graces. He offered them tax advice.

Dufresne – played by Tim Robbins – is remembered as the good guy in the American movie The Shawshank Redemption.

His example – albeit fictional – is a timely one. Relations between warders and prisoners have become a hot topic in China.

The controversy began in February when a prisoner died in a Yunnan jail during what the warders initially claimed to be a game of “hide-and-seek”.

In an earlier era such an unlikely explanation might have gone unqueried.

But the eagle-eyed scrutiny of China’s increasingly vocal online community (as discussed in Talking Point, WiC18) makes it much harder to sweep incidents like this under the bureaucratic carpet.

In the Yunnan case, an online survey soon had 15% of respondents describing the excuse as “ridiculous”, while 43% demanded to know the true cause of death. Contributors also lampooned the use of a children’s game to explain away a fatality. How can you play hide-and-seek in a prison anyway?

To make matters worse, a month later the authorities in Jiangxi province were conceding that one of their own inmates had died “after having a nightmare”. On investigation, it then came to light that the hide-and-seek victim had been beaten to death by another prisoner. The warden, the deputy warden and a prison guard were among those fired for dereliction of duty.

And now the Ministry of Justice has launched a new programme aimed at elevating standards of prison management.

The campaign, announced earlier this month, will see the nation’s 700 wardens go on a two month training course, aiming to “improve their ability to reform inmates”, according to the ministry.

High risk children’s games will no doubt be off the agenda, with more of a focus on imparting “moral, legal and vocational knowledge to inmates”, according to the course instructors.

In terms of vocational training, classes will be offered in welding, woodwork, computers and (somewhat implausibly) hairdressing. Justice minister Wu Aiying says this will help ensure that inmates “don’t return to the world of crime” after their release.

China’s prisons hold more than 1.5 million prisoners and all inmates work five days a week – for eight hours a day.

But like most prison regimes, inmates can also benefit from early release thanks to good behaviour. The Chutian Metropolis Daily recently reported on an unusual way in which one high-ranking inmate got his jail time reduced.

Zhang Erjiang, an ex-mayor, will be released a year and a half early. That’s because he’s written four books on classic Chinese literature from behind bars – including a treatise on Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Zhang was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison. His crime was bribery – in his trial it emerged he needed the kickbacks to fund his affairs with 107 women. He kept roughly 10 mistresses per year while running the Hubei cities of Danjiangkou and Tianmen between 1988 and 1999.

Anyway, according to Chinese criminal law, prisoners sentences can be reduced in event of “a great contribution to the country or society.” The Research Society of the Sun Tzu Chinese Academy of Military Science vouched for Zhang’s book as a “valuable contribution” to understanding the ancient military strategists work.

But perhaps Zhang’s published work is based as much on practical experience as academic insight.

As one blogger commented: “If he can deal with that many women, he should be an expert on Sun Tzu, as both would require exceptional strategy and tactics.”

Keeping Track: We reported on problems in China’s prisons in WiC20. On that occasion it was prisoners “dying from nightmares” that hit headlines. This time round an exasperated China Daily reports on a different issue: rampant bribery. The prison director of Maoming Prison in Guangdong, Cheng Jiazeng has been removed from his post for allegedly taking bribes from prisoners. In one of the juicier allegations, a rich inmate paid him for a false Hepatitis B report (that permitted his early release before his eight year sentence was up). Outlook Weekly interviewed a former jailbird who said bribery was common practice: “If you want to cut one year from your
sentence, you have to give them at least Rmb10,000.” Cheng was one of 11 officials to be dismissed at the prison. Investigations into other money-making schemes in the penitentiary are ongoing. (4 September 2009)

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