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Special Spring Festival for a few lucky prisoners

    All the prisoners released from the three city jails to spend time with their families during the Spring Festival have returned to their cell on schedule.

    The lucky few were selected for the five-day release under a program initiated by the Ministry of Justice. The precise number of those chosen hasn’t been made public.

    Lu Agen from Shanghai Tilanqiao Prison was one of the inmates who went home on February 15, the first day of the Spring Festival holiday. When he returned on Monday, inmates surrounded him, asking him about the outside world.

    “The city has changed so much that I could not even recognize the road in front of the prison, which seems broader and cleaner than before,” he said. “People now prefer to use smartphones to buy things, instead of cash or credit cards.”

    His wife had given him 2,000 yuan (US$315) to buy some items from a supermarket, but he didn’t need the cash — his sons used their WeChat apps to pay for the goods.

    Lu, 56, used to run a gas station and was arrested in 2011 after buying fuel at below market prices from smugglers. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His sentence was reduced by more than a year on account of good behavior, which again helped him to win a place in the program for hastening rehabilitation among prisoners.

    “The short family reunion made me more determined to reform myself and go home as soon as possible,” said Lu.

    “When I took off the prison uniform, and put on the casual clothes my wife bought for me and walked out of the prison gate, I felt I was an ordinary person again,” Lu recalled.

    His wife and elder son first took him to his home in Baoshan District. They then drove to their hometown on Changxing Island in Chongming District for the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner. Lu is the youngest son of a fisherman.

    “When I got off the car, more than 20 people were waiting for me, including my in-laws, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces,” he said. “I hugged them all. We were all full of mixed feelings to see more white hairs and wrinkles.”

    His father-in-law was 91 and could not recognize him at first. “Only when I stood in front of him and held his hands, did he know who I was. He said he missed me badly and asked me when I would be released.”

    It was the first time in seven years his siblings and those of his wife’s family gathered for the New Year’s Eve dinner.

    A brother-in-law cooked the dinner. The dishes were Lu’s favorites, including fish from the Yangtze River. The dinner started around 5pm but lasted more than three hours as they chatted about work and life.

    Lu’s younger son, 24, graduated from university last year and is now applying for teaching license, while his 30-year-old elder son is running a private company.

    “I owe so much to my family,” said Lu. “My wife has been supporting the family and I could not even accompany her when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. Fortunately, my sons took turns to look after their mother during the treatment.”

    Lu also visited the tombs of his parents. He used to do this in April on Tomb Sweeping Day as well as during the Spring Festival until he was incarcerated.

    The changes on Changxing Island also amazed Lu. “The roads are broader and the neighborhoods have been replaced by shipyards and the fishing harbor,” he said. “There is even a beautiful countryside park opened last year behind the home of my parents-in-law.”

    Lu said he was looking forward to return home full-time. “I’m applying for release on parole and if everything goes well, I will be able to go home in six months,” he said.

    Lu’s experience has also inspired other inmates. “We all admire at his fortune ... It gives me hope that luck will shine on me too one day if I keep behaving well,” said a prisoner surnamed Xu, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for fraud involving 60 million yuan. The penalty was commuted to 22 years last year.

    Around the country, 999 inmates from 311 prisons were allowed to go home to spend the Spring Festival with their families.

    Pan Wenjun, director of Tilanqiao Prison’s administration division, said officials are now evaluating how effective the program has been and will work out a plan to guide prisoners to improve their performances based on the results.