n a sultry summer day in 2012, Wang Yong realized he didn’t have any decent clothes for his ID card photo. He rushed into a shop and grabbed a new dark shirt, changing in a hurry before he posed for his photo. It was two days since he’d been released from prison, and the address on his old ID card didn’t exist anymore.
The 50 year old had no family, no home and no income. He’d been imprisoned for robbery in 2001. But shortly after he was freed he handed in a provisional resettlement application to the judicial bureau in the capital’s Chaoyang District.
In August 2012, Wang stepped into the Sunshine Halfway House in Chaoyang District (SHHC), kicking off a six-month temporary stay in the facility, which helps former prisoners readjust to the outside world. His first sight in the spacious entrance hall was a statement from the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
SHHC is the first institution to provide provisional shelter and education for ex-prisoners on the Chinese mainland. It also houses prisoners held in the “community rectification” system that operates parallel to China’s prisons, which has been running since 2003. SHHC had sheltered 106 just-released prisoners by the end of March 2017, who stayed for three- or six-month periods. The institution also helped them apply for new hukou (residence permits), and arrange basic social insurance, low-rent housing and other forms of welfare.
Li Bo, deputy director of SHHC, told NewsChina that the institution was established against the backdrop of the mounting security pressure of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Chaoyang District was home to many Olympic venues and embassies and reducing recidivism among offenders had become an urgent issue.
Unlike programs for former inmates in other countries which are mostly run by NGOs, SHHC is under the management of the local judicial agency, staffed by two or three police officers. Opening in July 2008, SHHC focuses on offering legal education, psychological counseling, social adaptation classes and career guidance for community termers.
Li told our reporter that at SHHC, hardness and softness are combined in management and four words are emphasized: Equality, love, respect and inclusion. “These beliefs are passed on to those serving community rectification terms in every way possible to help them regain confidence and reintegrate into society as soon as possible,” she told our reporter.
For example, at SHHC, the staff never identify people receiving community rectification as “inmates,” and instead, refer to them as“trainees.” To begin with, the staff and the “trainees” ate at different dining halls but the staff came to realize that many inmates were quite sensitive about the issue, so they merged the two facilities.
“It doesn’t really matter what food the instructors are eating – what is more important is to create an atmosphere in which the trainees could receive respect, not prejudice,” Miao Jingzheng, a police officer temporarily working at SHHC, told NewsChina.
According to Li Bo, each offender at SHHC has to take a series of courses over their time there before they are completely free. The preliminary course lasts four days to give a brief introduction of their duties and the basic rules and requirements. Miao said that there is a matriculation ceremony after the preliminary education and trainees are required to share their own stories. Miao said that he was impressed each time by the agony, loss, shame and regrets on the faces of trainees when they were talking of the misfortune they had brought to their families. The final course is taught in conjunction with the police to help prevent reoffending and better aid social integration.
In the current community rectification system, special courses are provided for women, including classes on female self-defense and the prevention of domestic violence. According to Li Bo, most women serving a term in the community system had committed crimes of negligence either for love or for their family and very few of them were behind bars because of money. She added that some were tricked into crime due to their lack of knowledge of the law.
As of the end of March 2017, SHHC had introduced 235 rounds of education for a total of 4,804 people. In addition, SHHC had partnered with 18 vocational training schools to provide the necessary skills for inmates to reintegrate into society. Some classes are highly sought after including cake-making, cooking, hair dressing, electrician skills and electric welding. So far 73 of the 3,045 people who received vocational education have passed the intermediate professional qualification certificates.
After leaving SHHC, Wang Yong began to realize the difficulties of living alone. He is a good driver and searched for a job as a driver through small ads, the Internet and signs pasted to walls – but every time he called, he was refused due to his age.
He also obtained a cooking certificate at SHHC and successfully got a job at a restaurant. But he’s refused to take social insurance from his employer, since he fears it would disqualify him from the low-rent housing he currently lives in, and finding a place by himself will be a big burden.
Four months after leaving SHHC, Wang got a driving job, where he can earn 300 yuan (US$44) for a night shift and 200 to 300 yuan (US$29 to 44) in the day. On average, he earns more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,450) a month – enough to get by, even in Beijing.
Talking about the six months at SHHC, Wang said what impressed him most was the pervasive loneliness. He told our reporter that when in prison, he shared a room with more than 10 inmates, but at SHHC he lived alone. “In prison, you do not need to worry about anything, but when I got out, I had to pay for food and transportation and live independently,” he said.
Wang recently considered starting a family but found it is quite difficult. “Every time I tried to date a girl, I was asked directly whether I have an apartment or a car, which made me very awkward, let alone being an ex-prisoner,” he said.
Meng Weiguo, psychological counselor at SHHC, said social prejudice has a harsh psychological impact on ex-prisoners, who also stick those labels on themselves. The SHHC staff try to help them get rid of their inferiority complex. “If you find it hard to change the mind of others, you have to change your own mind,” he said.
Zhang Yu was given a suspended sentence, and a one-year community rectification at a halfway house in Huairou District in Beijing. He told NewsChina that he was really depressed when he heard the sentence, and that he had an existing tendency of depression – often getting him strange looks from neighbors. But after one-to-one psychological counseling, he feels much better nowadays.
Every month, Meng conducts psychological counseling at SHHC as a part-time instructor and he said it is hard to provide a long-term psychological counseling service for inmates who need help. Li Bo told our reporter that it is a challenge for SHHC to integrate the separated social resources to create a professional and systematic social support system. She said that the psychological instructors at SHHC are from seven to eight institutions who are complementary to each other. “But it is even difficult for us to summon together all these teachers in the year end for a meeting,” she said. “We need long-term mechanisms to provide technological and financial support,” added Meng.
The situation in the capital’s Huairou District is quite different to that in Chaoyang. There are far fewer people serving community terms because of its suburban location and low population density. A community instructor there told NewsChina on condition of anonymity that community rectification is provided to minor criminal offenders to avoid “cross-infection” in prison – small-time offenders learning criminal skills and attitudes from more serious criminals.“Over the years, small class teaching has been promoted to ensure interactivity and effectively prevent cross-infection,” he said.
He told our reporter that the community rectification system also has some systematic problems. According to the Measures for the Implementation of Community Rectification jointly released by the Supreme Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, ministries of public security and justice, judicial administrative organs are in charge of the community rectification management but they are restricted in their ability to execute punishments. Cooperation with the legal departments and public security organs is not well coordinated.
For example, one inmate escaped to dodge a creditor and the local judicial organ asked public security to help chase him down. The public security organ, however, denied the request because according to the rules, the case of the escaped community termer fell short of the requirement for “Chasing Fugitives Online” and the fugitive could not be added to the fugitive data bank.
Annual meetings are held to tackle the issue, but always with the same outcome – continue coordinating like before. The local judicial organs have to keep a close eye on the inmates including regular visits to study their living conditions and their daily lives – but there’s a lack of measures to ensure this actually happens.