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May 23, 2004 

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Making prison life beautiful

Rong Jiaojiao & Wen Chihua

Kang Yuefei, serving three years for embezzlement, did not expect that one day she would be a beautician to fellow inmates at the Nanjing Women's Prison in eastern China.

The 28-year-old even has a certificate, which qualifies her for the beauty job. She is among the 12 inmates who were chosen, after they scored above average for their good behaviour, for a two-month beautician's training within the jail. "I feel appreciated and respected when my clients say `thank you' to me," says Yuefei. "Although I have done wrong, I feel I have not been deprived of my dignity." In this jail, which houses 1,300 women prisoners, those who behave well are entitled to a facial or body massage once a week. Consistent high scorers are provided with vocational training. The jail started this scheme in 2003 as part of a jail reform programme attempting to re-educate and rehabilitate women prisoners.

The key role in the reform programme has to be played by jail wardens, who in the past have often been accused of violating the human rights of inmates. About 27 per cent of the women in this jail have been sentenced for prostitution, while 19 per cent have been convicted of felony, including murder, according to head warden Mao Jun. There are also a number of economic criminals involved in cases ranging from fraud, embezzlement to bribery, she says.

According to the Beijing-based Legal Daily, 29,000 women in China have been convicted with crimes related to drug trafficking, robbery and murder in the past five years. Female prisoners are very sensitive, says Jun. The most trivial thing, like the hue and style of the jail uniform, can set them off. Therefore, "They should be treated differently. This prison gives us female wardens a stage to work out special methods to redeem women prisoners."

In 2003, the jail authorities decided to change the uniform after hearing how uncomfortable the women felt inside it in Nanjing's hot and humid summer. The women are now happy with their new uniform - a white polo shirt and cream-coloured, knee-high baggy pants. The women are also allowed to put on light make-up when they meet family members. "This enables them to see the hope in themselves and come to terms with their situation better," says Wu Xiaofeng, deputy head warden at the prison.

Thirty two-year-old Di Huiyu, imprisoned for committing fraud, says, "When I try the skin care products in the salon and wear make-up to see my parents, I feel I am a real woman, and still have a tomorrow." She says her aged parents feel relieved each time. "They see me in high spirits. All of this urges me to better abide by the law and discipline myself so as to re-enter society soon."

To avoid cutting off the women completely from society, the prison has also involves some of them as community workers. During weekends, the inmates go to a local nursing home to help old people needing care. The prisoners need not wear their uniforms for such visits. "We don't want them to feel inferior to other people. They could return to a normal life once they are `reshaped' and released," says Jun. The prison also mobilises social groups and members from the local community to participate in the correction process. Psychologists are also invited to talk to the inmates. A series of lectures on women's body and spiritual growth have also been regularised in the prison.

"The social contacts help in awakening their conscience and human nature," says Jun. "It's important to give the prisoners a proper social training so that they could become useful again to society." One major contribution of the recent reforms has been the legal education each prisoner gets. The first thing they are required to do when they enter the jail is to spend two months studying various laws. This exercise not only helps them realise why they were put in jail but also makes them conscious of their rights as individuals.

Zhou Jing, a 29-year-old serving a life sentence, had until very recently, no idea that a prisoner has the right to refuse being photographed. "I rejected a foreign journalist's request for photographs because I don't want my image to appear in the foreign press." For Jun, the biggest reward is a comment from a boy who said to his father after visiting his mother in the jail: "Mum's school is really good."

Courtesy: News Network


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