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Prison experiment allows jailbirds to head home for Spring Festival
02.13.2018

    The Ministry of Justice has initiated a trial program allowing some prisoners a short furlough to spend time with their families during the Spring Festival. Several Shanghai natives from three prisons in the city were lucky enough to draw “get out of jail” cards.

    Lu Agen, 56, is one of two inmates at Tilanqiao Prison who will be walking out the prison gate on Thursday, Chinese New Year’s Eve, on a five-day pass. He was incarcerated in August 2011 on smuggling charges.

    “I was thrilled when the prison wardens told me a week ago that I could go to a family reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve,” Lu told Shanghai Daily. “I have missed this important occasion for six years. I’m really grateful that the government is giving me this chance to prove that I am reformed.”

    Lu, who used to run a gas station, was arrested after buying fuel at below market prices from suppliers who turned out to be smugglers. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

    “I ruined the happiness of my whole family,” he said. “My wife scolded me every time she visited the prison in the first two years.”

    The rebukes seemed to work. Lu said he calmed down and went on his best behavior to try to get out as soon as possible. His sentence was reduced by more than one year.

    Still, Lu has missed watching his sons grow into adulthood.

    “My younger son, now 24, was a high school student when I was jailed, and he is now in college,” he said. “My eldest son is 30. He and his fiancee, whom I have never met, are holding off getting married until I can be present.”

    During his reprieve, Lu said he will visit the graves of his parents and the homes of his parents-in-law, who are now both in their 90s.

    Lu is not the only one pleased with the holiday release program. Prison administrators say it can play a big part in prisoner rehabilitation.

    “Family reunifications at the Spring Festival are an effective incentive to spur penitence for crime committed and hasten rehabilitation,” said Pan Wenjun, director of Tilanqiao Prison’s administration division.

    Seeing some inmates released on holiday furlough will cause other prisoners to improve their behavior in the hopes they may get the chance next year.

    Those being released this year were carefully vetted according to strict criteria, including the nature of their crimes, their behavior in prison and the situation with their families.

    “They must have served at least half of their jail terms, with good behavior,” said Pan. “And their crimes must be non-violent or dangerous to society or national security. Those who have committed crimes like murder and robbery are not eligible.”

    Psychological and physical evaluations are also done prior to release, and measures are in place to supervise those on leave, including electronic bracelets that must be worn 24 hours a day.

    The temporary parolees also have to register at a local police station every day and call the prison between 5-8pm daily to report their activities. They can go around the city but are forbidden from traveling outside Shanghai.

    The program has aroused some public debate. Though most people want criminals to be severely punished, many think a little mercy could influence a convict’s commitment to a crime-free future.

    A retired teacher surnamed Fan said the program may generate a kinder view of society by prisoners and help them assimilate at the end of their sentences.

    Others take a harder line.

    “Separation from family is part of the punishment for what they have done, and I don’t think they deserve mercy,” said an office worker surnamed Zhu. “What if they take the chance to escape or commit other crimes?”

    Justin Scholar, an American living in Shanghai, said the holiday release program shouldn’t be a problem if the prisoners are properly supervised.

    “It seems nothing is more important than family,” he said. “Assuming the inmates are stable and properly supervised, I think it is a good chance for them to reflect and to realize what is really important to them. If it does prove to be beneficial to the prisoners and give them a better chance for rehabilitation, then it’s worth the cost.”

    Nationwide, about 1,300 inmates from 300 prisons will be allowed to go home to spend the Spring Festival with their families, the Bureau of Prison Administration under Ministry of Justice said on its website.

    China’s prison law and related regulations allow prisoners to spend time with families when they meet certain conditions, but the practice was discontinued due to safety risks in recent years. But the Ministry of Justice has now decided to go ahead with it.

    Also, Shanghai and Beijing and the provinces of Jiangsu, Sichuan and Shaanxi will allow family visits for some prisoners during the Spring Festival.