What Are Prisons In China Like?

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In China, where the government’s violations of human rights are still pretty common, prisons are often described as “hell on earth.”

Critics of China’s prison system believe that its prisoners are frequently tortured, poorly fed and are treated as slaves through hard labor in extremely inhumane conditions. On the other end, the government always claims that the system has effectively reformed hundreds of thousands of criminals into law-abiding citizens through humanized methods.

Who should we believe then? For some of the people who have ever been locked up in Chinese prisons, their experiences are hellish. For some others, especially nowadays, prisons are not as brutal as how they are commonly perceived. So what is it really like to be in jail in China? Before getting a somewhat objective answer to this question, we have to learn a bit more about China’s judicial systems as not every place that a person is imprisoned is called a prison.

The Four Types of “Prisons” In China

Before 2014, a person who was believed to be on the wrong side of the law could end up in one of the four places: house of detention, labor camp, detention center and prison. For many Chinese, however, they mean the same thing — a jail, because you are locked up there. But in reality, they are very different and serve different purposes, and their inmates would have different experiences, none of which could be comfortable though.

House of Detention

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Chinese at a detention House-Image Source: Getty Images

A house of detention, also known as a security or administrative detention, mainly holds in custody those who are charged with a violation. In other words, it is used primarily against minor offenders, such as prostitutes and their clients, drug addicts and petty criminals, whose misdemeanors are not serious enough for criminal prosecution.

The period that a person can be held in a house of detention is one to 15 days, during which the detainee is not required to work other than doing some basic cleaning, and most likely will receive some education in laws and regulations. Administrative detention is regarded as the lightest form of punishment for law offenders.

Labor Camp (RETL)

Labor camp, which is known as “laojiao” in Chinese or re-education through labor (RETL), had been an administrative punishment system, before it was abolished at the end of 2013 due to its notorious operations. First officially established in 1957, RETL was initially an effective alternative to incarceration, punishing perpetrators of minor or petty crimes. These violators were put to work in a factory or on a farm so that they could be rehabilitated. In modern times, however, the system was largely abused because there was no centralized decision-making body responsible for regulating RETL.

As a result, local police were given the ultimate power to determine when a person could be detained, so individuals were rarely charged or tried before being detained. Sentences under RETL were typically for one to three years, with the possibility of an additional one-year extension. Detainees in labor camps were required to work for little or no pay. And there had been outcries from international human rights organizations as well as domestic groups about long working hours, overcrowded living spaces, low-quality food, and poor or absent medical care at the camps.

For a long time, critics had also accused the authorities of misusing the camps to silence political dissidents, human rights activists, and Falun Gong practitioners. With the change of top leadership in 2012, the government finally scrapped the controversial system.

Detention Centers

Just like a labor camp, a detention center in China is also likely to be regarded as a prison. Actually, it is not even though it is operated just like a prison in many ways. It is a place where suspects are held before trial.

So a person placed in a detention center is not a criminal, at least not yet. But in China, if you end up being in such a place, you are a criminal already, and you will be treated as one. What’s worse is that you usually suffer more than a convicted criminal in a prison. To a large extent, it is what a suspect often experiences in a detention center that gives people the impression that China’s prison system is so brutal.

In a detention center, a suspect can be held for a period ranging from several days to several years. To get confessions from suspects, especially those accused of such felonies as murder, rape and corruption, police may resort to a variety of inhumane methods, including torture.

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Image Source: Breitbart

According to official regulations, however, police are to refrain from mistreatment when interrogating suspects. But police basically flout these regulations and physical abuse of prisoners is quite common.

According to human rights activists, suspects are often beaten with electric batons, deprived of sleep, shackled in painful positions, hung from their wrists, and even being left for two to three days in solitary confinement without food. And it is not always the police who carry out the torture. Inmates who act as “cell bosses” often commit such atrocities on other detainees in exchange for favorable treatment from police.

Even if some suspects can avoid being tortured, like everybody else in a detention center, they still have to endure bad living conditions and poor quality food. According to many personal accounts, there are no beds for inmates in detention centers, so they have to sleep on the concrete floor without blankets or pillows. And the room is so crowded that many detainees have to sleep on their sides.

..there are no beds for inmates in detention centers, so they have to sleep on the concrete floor without blankets or pillows. And the room is so crowded that many detainees have to sleep on their sides.”

In addition to all these hardships, suspects in many detention centers have to work long hours on a daily basis. According to the official Detention Center Regulations, suspects can be assigned to do some “appropriate work.” But what counts as “appropriate” is not defined. So the kind of assignment and the number of working hours are totally based on the discretion of a detention center. As a result, some detention centers may force detainees to work over 10 hours a day.

For most suspects, their sufferings at detentions centers are simply unbearable. That’s why many detainees actually felt relieved when they were eventually convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. At this point, they knew that they would be transferred to a real prison where they could actually sleep on beds and most likely fare better.

Official Prison:

Reform Criminals through Labor or Take Advantage of Them as Slaves?

The Western media, which often accuse China of violating human rights through its prison system, are likely to refer labor camps, detention centers and prisons all as “prisons.”

Strictly speaking, however, only the place where convicted criminals serve their sentences is a prison. Believe it or not, prison inmates are somewhat treated better than those held in a labor camp or detention center. Maybe it is due to the fact that the prison system is under the direct jurisdiction of the central government. So in a way, prisoners are less likely subject to the whimsical actions of prison guards. Still, as a prison is meant to punish criminals, inmates will suffer nonetheless. First of all, they are forced to work, and work to a point at which it becomes exploitation.

According to the Prison Law of China, all criminals must work except those who are physically unable to do so. It is regarded as a reform method that helps criminals transform into law-abiding citizens.

The law stipulates that prisoners shall enjoy the same benefits as employees of state enterprises in terms of work hours, holidays and supply of food. In other words, they are not supposed to work more than 8 hours a day, and should be compensated accordingly if they work overtime. But according to various personal accounts from former prisoners, most of the time, prisons bend the rules and force inmates to work almost as slaves.

“Passing the Gate of Hell”: The Horrific Testimony of a Chinese Inmate

Chinese prisoners are lined up at the Donghekou Earthquake Site Park in Qingchuan County in China's southwest Sichuan province on May 8, 2009 to pay their respects to the victims of the May 12, 2008 quake which left over 87,000 dead of missing and another five million people homeless. A year after the Sichuan earthquake laid waste huge swathes of southwest China, life is slowly returning to normal, but skepticism over the way relief work has been carried out remains. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Image Source: Peter Parks

In 2006, an article posted on quite a few popular websites in China drew much attention to the prison life, which is generally unknown to the public. It was written by a former female prisoner with the online pseudonym “Passing the Gate of Hell,” detailing her 5 years of experience in a prison.

According to her account, she and her fellow inmates had to work far into the night on a daily basis in order to meet the production quota required by her prison. Their main work was weaving woolen sweaters by hand and each person was required to make one every day. It was a daunting task for most prisoners, but they had to do it as it was the only way that their sentences could be reduced.

She wrote in the article that she had to get up at 5:00 am in the summer and 6:00 am in the winter, and then had to finish freshening up, using the toilet and eating her breakfast within one hour. And she would start a day’s work right afterward. She had only 30 minutes for her lunch and dinner respectively and went back to work immediately after each meal. She and the other prisoners had to finish as much work as possible to accumulate enough points for their sentences to be commuted. Sometimes they would work even during sleep time as the lights were never shut off in the prison.

As a quota was imposed on a group of inmates instead of each individual, those who could not work fast enough were often scolded and even cursed by fellow inmates as well as prison guards, she wrote. Some prisoners even attempted to commit suicide under such tremendous pressures.

Early last year, an account from a former male prisoner in China’s northern Heilongjiang Province largely confirmed such horrible experiences in terms of hard labor in prisons. Zhu Yishan, who was imprisoned for four years starting from 2008, wrote in an article posted online that he had been forced to work more than a dozen hours per day to make car seat cushions and chopsticks. He had to meet a personal quota of 7,000 pairs of chopsticks a day. The quota for each inmate was so high that they all had to work overtime almost every day. If any of them could not meet the quota, he wrote, the person would be cursed or even beaten.

Prison Food is Simple but Still Better than That in Detention Centers

To make sure that prisoners have enough energy to work day after day, food offered in prisons is simple but not that bad, at least better than that provided in detention centers. As described by the above-mentioned female prisoner, she could either eat a dish consisting of vegetables and some shredded meat or one with only vegetables for lunch and dinner. If it was an all-vegetable dish, then she could also have a bowl of soup containing wispy beaten eggs.

Still, she wrote, prisoners would likely get hungry right before going to bed as they had continued working after having dinner at 5 p.m. Fortunately, most of them could eat some snacks that they were allowed to buy once a month at a small store in the prison. The most favorite snack from the store was instant noodles. For a long time after she was eventually released, she would feel like vomiting whenever she saw people eating instant noodles. She had got more than enough of them in prison.

The most favorite snack from the store was instant noodles. For a long time after she was eventually released, she would feel like vomiting whenever she saw people eating instant noodles. She had got more than enough of them in prison.”

According to her account, since the stuff sold at the prison store were quite expensive, not every inmate could get a break when being hit by a pang of hunger. Some of her fellow prisoners had no or little money because they could not get it from their families, which had difficulties making ends meet themselves. The prisoners who were illiterate and from the countryside were likely to suffer the most financially, she revealed in her article. Just as in a normal society outside of prisons, money plays a very important role inside prisons as well. In general, the more money you have, the better you fare in prison.

The above-mentioned prisoner Zhu described a similar situation from the perspective of a male prison. The regular meals, called “Big Pot Dishes” as they were cooked using a huge wok, were tasteless with cheapest vegetables. Potatoes were not peeled most of the time and sometimes were not even properly washed.

Prisoners with enough money could just buy food from the prison cafeteria to satisfy their cravings. The cafeteria was intended for serving prison guards only, but it sold food at a much higher price to inmates to make a profit from prisoners, according to Zhu. Many unofficial sources say that such a practice is common among prisons throughout the country even though it is forbidden by the government.

It also has to be noted that prison food varies from region to region. Although all prisons in the country are administrated by the Ministry of Justice, there are offices of justice in each of the provinces to manage the prisons falling within their jurisdiction, and that’s how the provision of prison food can be so different between various regions. For example, prisons in the northern part of the country are likely to provide steamed bread as staple food, while prisons in southern China usually offer rice. 

In general, prisons in economically more developed regions provide better meals than those located in less developed provinces, usually with more meat and varieties of dishes. By the same token, prisons in big cities have better living conditions including food than those in smaller cities.

Taking Showers and Using Toilets Can Be an Ordeal

For many prisoners, the most unbearable thing is not hard labor nor insipid food, but extremely unpleasant experiences in taking a shower or using a toilet. In most prisons, inmates are only allowed to take a shower once a week during the winter and a little bit more often during the summer and they have to rush through each shower.

Usually, a prisoner is given 15 minutes to finish a shower, which actually sounds pretty good. But that amount of time includes lining up with other prisoners to wait for your turn, taking off your clothes, taking the shower and putting your clothes back on. So the time that a prisoner is actually in the shower may last only one to two minutes. When taking off their clothes, prisoners are most likely being watched by prison guards, so they may feel that more dignity is taken away from them. Many female prisoners especially feel humiliated each time they take off their clothes even though the guards who keep an eye on them are also female.

Using a toilet can also be an ordeal as usually prisoners are allowed to relieve themselves only at specific times during the day with little privacy. If an inmate needs to use the toilet at other times, he or she has to get approval from a prison guard, who may give the prisoner an attitude. And toilets in prisons can be extremely dirty with a strong urine smell, especially during the summer.

Another big challenge for many prisoners is their extremely limited contact with their families. Inmates can write letters, which will be scrutinized before being sent out. But generally they can only make one phone call each month to their families, and each call cannot last more than 5 minutes, although sometimes the prison administration may use its discretion to grant a prisoner a bit more time on the phone. In addition, family visits are allowed, but also only once a month, and the duration of the meeting is usually limited to 20 minutes. For many prisoners, this moment is very agonizing as time just flies by and many words are still left unsaid.

Measures Have Been Taken to Make Prisons More Humane

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Image Source: Asia News

Generally speaking, the fundamental policies with regard to prison management seem to be well in place in China, but the problem is that many of these policies are not well implemented. For example, by law, prisoners shall have two hours of study time and eight hours of sleep every day. In addition, prisoners should also have time for cultural or sports activities on a daily basis. But in many prisons, as a result of the demanding work quota, prisoners are deprived of most time for education and recreational activities because they have to spend more time working.

Over the past several years, the Chinese government has been more aware of the various problems with prison management and started taking some measures to make prisons more humanized. For example, nowadays more prisons no longer require inmates to work after 8 p.m. so that prisoners can have more time to study and engage in cultural activities. And now many prisoners are even getting paid for their work, although it’s only about 100-200 Yuan ($15-30) each month.

Another area that the authorities are trying to improve is prison food. According to Prison Law, “the living standard of prisoners shall be measured by the quantity of material objects, and it shall be set by the State.” To be more specific, for each month, a prisoner shall enjoy 17-25 kilograms of grain, 15-20 kilograms of vegetables, 0.5-1 kilograms of cooking oil, 1.5-2.5 kilograms of meat and 1-2 kilograms of eggs, fish and soybean products.

While many prisons are still not up to this standard, some prisons definitely provide meals based on this standard. According to a news report last year about a prison in Panyu, southern Guangdong Province, inmates could enjoy two dishes for both lunch and dinner, with chicken, duck meat and fish being alternatively provided during each week.

Also, nowadays most prisons allow prisoners to buy a decent amount of food to supplement their prison diet. It’s generally regarded as a positive development despite concerns that prisons may try to make profits from prisoners through such a practice.

Another progress in prison management is that some prisons have started allowing conjugal visits for inmates who have been jailed for a long time with exceptional performance.

Despite all these improvements, accused by many as just a political show, there are still many flaws with China’s prison system. For one thing, torture still happens in prisons, although much less frequently than that in detention centers. For another, contact with family members is still too limited, especially for female prisoners, who are often the primary caretakers of their children. In addition, many prisons still have corruption, mainly in the form of taking bribes from prisoners to give them better treatment in return.

Since the abolishment of the “re-education through labor” system, there has been hope that China will soon have more judicial reforms to overhaul the brutal detention centers and further improve its prison system.

Now, it seems that there is still a long way to go in such reforms.


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