And Finally

A captive market

Guangdong prisoners are buying from Alibaba


China’s 1.7 million prison inmates are no strangers to their country’s digital revolution. Some of them were even apprehended in facial recognition stings (see WiC380). But until this month one of the biggest trends on the Chinese internet – online shopping – had passed the prisoners by.

That is now changing after a jail in Foshan in Guangdong province introduced e-commerce terminals to enable its inmates to buy basic necessities such as snacks, shoes and shampoo.

Online shopping in jails “will narrow the gap between prison and society and help to motivate inmates to reform,” reported, quoting the head of Guangdong’s prison system.

Photos in the newspapers showed inmates at Conghua jail lining up to use a touchscreen terminal that appears to be running a modified version of Alibaba’s Taobao shopping platform (sadly none of the photos were captioned ‘Alibaba and the forty thieves’).

The prisoners use their fingerprints to log into the terminal and have 15 minutes to choose their goods.

Spending is capped at Rmb800 ($115.61) a month, from money sent in by relatives or earned by the inmates from the work they do as part of their sentence.

Average individual expenditure over the four-month trial period was about Rmb300 a month, the Yangcheng Evening News said.

Previously inmates at Conghua could buy goods by filling out chits that were submitted to prison guards. Goods took about 20 days to materialise and the selection was limited.

Prison authorities say the new system provides greater choice and a faster turnaround.

The orders are bundled together, delivered in bulk and then distributed – generally in less than a week.

Conghua prison took delivery of 400,000 items during the trial period between January and April, it said.

The system may be rolled out to other jails across the country, said.

Giving prisoners access to shopping channels obviously comes with some risk. For instance, prison officials said inmates are blocked from buying items containing rope, metal or glass. Yet they also stressed that prisoners had the same consumer rights as any other online shopper.

The introduction of e-commerce in jails has another advantage, prison bosses say, in helping to prevent the abuse of power by guards, who have less control over the supply of goods.

Of course, for the Chinese economy it is no bad thing either. If a greater share of the 1.7 million people in prison start to do more of their shopping online, that’s a further boost to domestic consumption.

No doubt there will soon be a host of firms trying to capitalise on sales to such a captive market.

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