Sunday, August 28, 2011

Surging Numbers of Women in Prison Present Unique Challenges

Retired businesswoman-cum-rights activist Wang Lihong (王荔蕻) was tried on charges of creating a serious disturbance on August 12. She was previously detained for celebrating Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize. Former lawyer and housing activist Ni Yulan (倪玉兰) was detained for creating a serious disturbance in April and issued a new indictment for fraud in July. She was allegedly beaten by police during a previous detention and visited by Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China, in February 2011.

Given the high rate of conviction in criminal trials, it is likely that both Wang and Ni will join the swelling ranks of China’s women prisoners.

Inmates marching in Guangdong Women’s Prison, May 2004. With a capacity of 5,000 inmates, this prison is thought to be the largest women’s prison in the world. Photo credit: Liu Hongqun, Guangdong Department of Justice

As of late August, Dui Hua had almost 5,700 women recorded in its database of more than 25,000 political and religious prisoners who have been detained in China since 1980. Most have been released. Well-known female political prisoners have included: the Tibetan leader of the singing nuns of Drapchi Ngawang Sangdrol (阿旺桑珍), released on medical parole in 2002 after spending 10 years in prison; award-winning journalist Gao Yu (高瑜), released in 1999 after completing the majority of a six-year sentence; and Uyghur businesswoman and activist Rebiya Kadeer (热比亚•卡德尔), released on medical parole in 2005 after five years’ imprisonment. Ngawang Sangdrol and Rebiya Kadeer are living in exile in the United States.

Dui Hua currently knows of nearly 1,300 women political prisoners confirmed or reported to be in detention centers, prisons, or reeducation-through-labor camps. These include Gulmire Imin (古丽美拉), serving a life sentence for administering a Uyghur website that called for a demonstration in Xinjiang in July 2009; Yeshe Choedron (益西曲珍), serving a 15-year sentence for providing information to the Tibetan Youth Congress; and Ding Shuyin (丁树银), serving a 12-and-a-half year sentence for protesting against railway construction in Tianjin. Many religious prisoners are Falun Gong practitioners. Two of those currently incarcerated for “cult offenses” are former university lecturer Liang Bo (梁波), serving a three-and-a-half year sentence, and Yao Yue (姚悦), a Qinggua University researcher serving a 12-year sentence. As with the political prisoner population as a whole, Dui Hua knows the names of only a small fraction, probably under 10 percent, of all women political prisoners. Several of those rounded up as part of the recent campaign to stifle calls for a Jasmine Revolution—including Liang Haiyi (梁海怡), still detained in Heilongjiang, and Lui Guohui (刘国慧), under residential surveillance in Shandong—have been women.

A Global Issue: Soaring Rates of Women in Prison

Women are the world’s fastest growing prisoner demographic, estimated to account for between 2 and 10 percent of national prison populations. In China, more than 5 percent of inmates in prisons run by the Ministry of Justice are women, a figure that has been growing since the 1990s. According to China News Service, between 1997 and 2002 the number of women in Chinese prisons increased at an average annual rate of 13 percent. Although the annual rate of growth has slowed somewhat since 2002, it is still faster than the rate of increase for male prisoners. If the rate of growth registered in 2009 is maintained, China’s prisons will hold nearly 100,000 female prisoners by the middle of 2012.

Women in Prison
Year Number Percent of Total Prisoners
2003 71,286 4.61%
Source: National Bureau of Statistics, China

These numbers do not include women held in detention centers awaiting trial. Nor do they include women in reeducation-through-labor camps and other forms of “administrative detention” like custody-and-education centers, which hold sex workers and their clients, and mandatory drug rehabilitation centers. Based on limited statistics and anecdotal evidence, a significant number of the roughly 200,000 prisoners in China’s reeducation camps are female Falun Gong practitioners. (Practitioners who fail to be reeducated are sometimes incarcerated in so-called “legal education centers.”)

Aside from the nationwide crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners that began in 1999, increasing urbanization is also a factor in the rise of China’s women prisoner population. Urbanization has exacerbated the income disparities between rural and urban dwellers and contributed to a rise in domestic abuse (and resultant self-defense), property crimes, child trafficking, and sex work—those organizing and facilitating sex work are handled in the criminal justice system, while sex workers and their clients are handled in the administrative punishment system.

In China, as elsewhere, administering female prisoner populations presents unique challenges. Unless female prisoners are segregated from male prisoners and supervised by female guards, the risk of male-on-female violence is high. Chinese laws and regulations dictate that women and men be held in separate detention facilities, but examples of men abusing female inmates are not uncommon. In 2000, China’s Justice Minister Gao Changli was removed from office due to unspecified economic and political problems. It was widely rumored that he had incurred the wrath of then President Jiang Zemin for allowing sex workers, many of them female prisoners, into prisons to service well-heeled inmates. On his visit to the all-male Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai in December 2000, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm was shown a pre-fab cell block used to house female prisoners assigned to the prison’s “artistic performance troupe.”

An inmate looks on as prisoners practice Taichi, October 2009. Photo credit: Tianfu Morning Paper

Another area of concern is the handling of pregnant inmates and procedures surrounding childbirth in prison. China’s record in this area seems considerably better than that of the United States, where in a majority of the 50 states prison guards are allowed to shackle women during childbirth and where in many states, including California, babies are separated from their mothers 48 hours after birth. Chinese regulations permit pregnant and nursing women to serve their sentences outside of prison, though it is not known how common it is for this enlightened policy to be observed.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing administrators charged with managing China’s women prisoners is overcrowding. Most Chinese provinces have only one dedicated women’s prison, and design capacities have not kept pace with the growth in inmate populations. In Shandong, for example, officials recommended in May 2004 that a new women’s prison be constructed with a capacity of 3,000 inmates. At that time, the number of women detained in the provincial women’s prison was 147 percent of its 1,500-inmate capacity. By 2010 Shandong was still reviewing bids to relocate the prison.

Conditions in China’s custodial facilities are largely unknown because of a lack of updated information and access. Foreign visits are rarely allowed. Dui Hua is aware of only two foreign visits to women’s prisons and reeducation camps in recent years. In November 2003, participants in the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue were shown the Daxing Women’s Reeducation-through-Labor Camp south of Beijing. The visitors were told that 70 percent of inmates were Falun Gong practitioners. In 2009, Melanie Tai, a senior officer with New South Wales Correctional Services, was taken on a tour of a women’s prison but no details of her visit have been released.

The UN’s adoption of the Bangkok Rules (also known as the Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders) in December 2010 portends more attention to the plight of women in prison worldwide. This will hopefully also lead to greater openness among China’s penal authorities in discussing problems associated with the country’s growing population of women prisoners. A first step is to engage in dialogue with international bodies and countries, like the United States, that are also challenged by the surge in the number of women in custody. Dui Hua’s research indicates that no two countries have ever held a formal exchange dedicated exclusively to women in prison.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Xu Zerong: With American Attention … All Prisoners Benefit

John Kamm with Ministry of Justice and prison administration bureau officials at Dongguan Prison, November 11, 2002.
In recent years, visits to Chinese prisons made by representatives of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations have been reduced to a trickle. This is due in part to the reduction of Sino-Western bilateral rights dialogues and the elimination of visits to custodial centers that these dialogues once fostered. Consular visits to individual prisoners aside, the International Center for Prison Studies visited prisons in Anhui and Hubei in March 2009; Dui Hua visited the Beijing Juvenile Detention Center in May 2010; and an international humanitarian organization visited two Chongqing prisons in the spring of 2011. No United Nations officials have been allowed into Chinese prisons since Manfred Nowak, the special rapporteur on torture, returned from a visit in late 2005 to condemn its palpable “climate of fear.”

Though dwindling, visits by foreigners to Chinese prisons play an important role in ensuring the humane treatment of prisoners. In a recent interview with Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, Xu Zerong discussed how he ended up serving 11 years in prison and how overseas intervention improved his life in custody.

In November 2002, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm visited Dongguan Prison in Guangdong Province. A few months later, Xu was transferred there to serve his sentence for “trafficking in state secrets.” The following is an excerpt from the Open Magazine interview detailing prison conditions and the impact of international concern on the treatment Xu received.

Writing Got Him Through the Prison Years
Cai Yongmei
Open Magazine
August 6, 2011

[Translated Excerpt]
問 :與花相比如何?

Open Magazine: How was [Dongguan Prison] compared to Huadu [National Security Detention Center]*?

徐澤榮:好多了,在花都關在只有一兩個人的牢房中,現在一間牢房有十至十二人,有人說話。東莞監獄是廣東的模範監獄,管理比較文明。這也有美國人的功 勞。中美對話基金會的康原(John Kamm),於一九九九年十一月來參觀過,由司法部外事處的人陪同,監獄小報有報導。有了美國人的關注,監獄環境得到改善,犯人都是受益者。

Xu Zerong: Much better. At Huadu I was held in a cell with just one or two people. [At Dongguan] each cell had 10 to 12 people, so there were people to talk to. Dongguan Prison is a model prison in Guangdong Province. Management is relatively civilized. This is also to the Americans’ credit. The Dui Hua Foundation’s John Kamm visited [Dongguan Prison] in November 1999 [sic] along with officials from the Ministry of Justice foreign affairs bureau; this was reported in the prison newspaper. With American attention, prison conditions improved, and all prisoners benefited.


OM: Kamm remained very concerned about your case.

徐澤榮:是的,這年十一月我從東莞監獄調到環境更好的廣州西村監獄,我認為是康原幫的忙。廣州西川與東莞這兩個監獄都被評為廣東部級文明監獄,由於西村 是廣東勞改局直接領導,生活上對犯人更要文明一些,加班也沒有東莞厲害。在東莞由於勞動時間長,沒有時間寫東西,我要半夜起來寫。西村監獄十五個監區,一 個關香港人,一個關澳門台灣人,還有一個關外國人,但沒有西方人。我是關在大陸人的監區內。牢房中都有衛生間。一個緬甸人說感覺很好,好像是住賓館。○五 年二月還把我與老弱犯人關在一起,免於勞動,使我有時間寫東西,都是康原與當局交涉的結果。他還給我寄了五本書,是關於美國外交和國際關係這類,還收到他 一封短信。

XZR: Yes. In November of that year I was transferred from Dongguan Prison to Guangzhou Xicun Prison, which had even better conditions. I believe this was [due to] his help. Both the Guangzhou Xichuan [sic] and Dongguan prisons are considered Guangdong’s most civilized prisons. Because Guangdong’s prison administration bureau directly supervises Xicun [Prison], prisoners’ living conditions were even more civilized [there], and [mandatory] overtime labor was not as severe as in Dongguan. Because work hours were long in Dongguan, there was no time to write—I had to wake up in the middle of the night to write.

Xicun Prison has 15 cell blocks, one for Hong Kong people, one for Macanese and Taiwanese people, and one for foreigners, but there weren’t any Westerners. I was detained in the cell block for mainland Chinese. There were bathrooms in the cells. One Burmese said it felt nice, like staying in a guesthouse. In February 2005 I was even put together with weak and elderly** prisoners and waived from doing labor, giving me time to write. All of this was the result of Kamm’s negotiations with the authorities. He even sent me five books about things like US diplomacy and international relations. I also received a short letter from him.


OM: When you were in prison, were you aware of the support you had overseas?

徐澤榮:我聽律師講到海外有人聲援我,聯署簽名。也有後來入獄的犯人說在香港電視上看過報導。我最為驚訝的是在廣州監獄收到美國硅谷寄給我的一張卡,有 八個人簽名,其中一位叫周鋒鎖,我覺得名字很熟悉,我查官方出的六四書《新中國大波瀾》,發現他是北京天安門學生領袖,心裡很震動。還收到國際筆會從美國 寄來的四封聖誕卡,也感到意外。你們獨立中文筆會頒獎給我,姪女也告訴我了 ,還把獎盃的照片交給了監獄方面。這些對我都是很大的鼓勵,知道在這個世界上有很多人不認為我是犯罪的。我真的是很感謝大家。

XZR: [My] lawyer told me that there were people overseas who were supporting me and signing a petition [on my behalf], and prisoners incarcerated afterward said they saw reports [on my case] on Hong Kong TV. The most surprising thing for me was when I was in Guangzhou Prison and received a card from Silicon Valley signed by eight people including someone named Zhou Fengsuo. The name sounded familiar so I looked in an official book on the June 4th incident, New China Review, and discovered that he was a student leader at Beijing’s Tiananmen. I was extremely moved.

I also received four Christmas cards sent from the United States by International PEN, which were unexpected. When your Independent Chinese PEN Center gave me an award, my niece told me and even gave the prison a photo of the trophy. All of this was of great encouragement to me, knowing that there are many people in this world who don’t think that I committed a crime. I am really very grateful to everyone.

*In the interview, Xu says Huadu National Security Detention Center was established in 1995 to house special operatives, political prisoners, and Guangzhou municipal officials ranking at or above deputy level. He said conditions at Huadu are better than at other detention centers, noting en suite air conditioners and televisions and good food.

**Prisoners age 55 and older are classified as elderly.