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.