Prisons, understood here specifically as spaces of confinement in which convicted criminals are detained for the duration of their custodial sentence, did not appear in China until the beginning of the twentieth century. After the disaster of the Boxer rebellion in 1900, punishments were limited to the death penalty, imprisonment or fines. The movement for prison reform that appeared at the end of the Qing gathered momentum after the fall of the empire in 1911: Beijing Number One Prison, one of the first model prisons built to the highest international standards in China, opened its doors in 1912. Dozens of similar penal institutions followed, as local and central authorities actively pursued an extensive programme of prison building guided by the belief that criminals could be educated and reformed in the therapeutic space of the prison (Jianyu). By the 1930s, over 25,000 prisoners were detained on any one day in China’s modern prisons, not counting detention houses and county gaols (this was comparable to the prison population of a large European country like France or England). Republican prisons were theoretically accountable to the public and practically scrutinized by a variety of competing elements—charitable associations, judicial inspectors, local journalists and foreign observers.
After 1949, however, China became a hermetically closed universe in which information on labour camps was a state secret. The CCP shared the faith of previous regimes in the power of institutions to mould a socially cohesive polity, but the transformation of the penal system into a political tool magnified the worst problems of the prison.
While Republican penologists had envisaged indeterminate sentences and forced agricultural labour, these ideas were never fully implemented due to administrative impediments and legal constraints. Under the CCP, millions ended up in labour camps in the countryside for indeterminate periods until deemed by the Party to have been re-educated: they formed the backbone of the ‘reform through labour’ system referred to as the laogai. The brutal treatment of political and common prisoners, the gradual destruction of human beings, the widespread use of torture and physical violence in ‘thought reform’ are some of the most disturbing aspects of the laogai system, which has administered the lives of 20 to 30 million convicts since 1949.
Since the mid 1990s, the authorities have attempted to streamline the penal system, and labour camps and prison factories are again called ‘prisons’, as the cycle of penal reform has come full circle, and government authorities themselves have accepted the failure of the laogai to either reform prisoners or contribute to the economic output of the country. Profit became the main criterion by which prison activity was evaluated in the 1980s, as penal authorities were forced to make the prisons financially self-sustaining, often at the expense of the inmates’ education and rehabilitation. Food remains a central concern—in the wave of ‘economic reforms’ the amount allocated even to prison personnel declined between the mid 1980s and 1990s, leading to the theft of provisions intended for prisoners. Without sufficient funds for medical care, moreover, health problems have become endemic. Explosions in the prison population—which regularly follow the ‘hard-strike campaigns’ (yanda) against crime since 1983—have caused prison congestion in many parts of the country. On the whole, prisoners have not benefited from the ‘economic reforms’ initiated by Deng Xiaoping since 1979.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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