Looking outside from behind bars, 'cowards' face a day of reckoning

Tian Shengjie
A program at one Shanghai prison is helping inmates learn how to readjust their thinking and prepare to re-enter society.
Tian Shengjie

From behind prison bars, the outside world can look like a frightening place if there are no guardrails to ensure a smooth transition back to society.

Li Miao, an officer at the Shanghai Wujiaochang Prison, said many inmates ready for release have psychological problems related to dealing with broken families or handling new technologies such as mobile apps and QR payment codes. Some would rather be cowards and remain behind bars.

In 2012, Shanghai initiated a "pre-release education" program to tackle the problem. Wujiaochang prison in Yangpu District has become the city's only pre-release jailhouse. It is for male inmates due to be released within three months.

Part of the program invites the prisoners to participate in a simulation of life on the outside. A 50-meter "street" within prison walls has been created, complete with a public security bureau, bank, judicial office and other public services. Staff members from actual departments portray themselves in the simulation game.

Looking outside from behind bars, 'cowards' face a day of reckoning
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A staff member from the local justice office answers a prisoner's questions in a simulated office on the 50-meter "street" inside Wujiaochang prison.

Prisoners are guided through such experiences as booking train tickets and making withdrawals from imitation automated teller machines. They can also consult staff on issues related to family, law and household registration.

In May, Yangpu's judicial bureau and the prison signed an agreement to expand involvement of local department staff to add an employment center and legal aid office to the "street." Since 2021, virtual reality technology has been introduced in the transition program.

Shanghai Daily recently witnessed the conclusion of a month in the simulated setting. The inmate faces told the story. They looked relaxed.

"After talking with a social worker from a community service center, my stress has been relieved," said an inmate surnamed Zhou, who was imprisoned for four years for operating an illegal gambling den. "I am now looking forward to returning to society and reuniting with my family.

Freedom burns like a blinding light for many prisoners. The program seeks to filter the light into new lives. Its success stories are a source of pride for prison officials involved in the program.

Looking outside from behind bars, 'cowards' face a day of reckoning
Ti Gong

The 50-meter "street" in Wujiaochang prison, with an imitation public security bureau, bank, judicial office and other public services.

A police officer surnamed Li cited the example of a 26-year-old inmate identified only as Du, who faced release in three months and told Li that freedom and life meant nothing to him.

Du's life story was a tangled mess of misfortune and missed opportunities. His father passed away when he was very young, and his mother, who couldn't afford treatment for her cancer, turned to drugs and died of an overdose when Du was only 14.

The teenager then went to live with an uncle later sentenced to 10 years in prison for aggravated assault. Du was left to fend for himself. He studied computer science for several years and managed to secure jobs, only to be fired soon after because he was an unregistered resident and had lost his birth certificate many years earlier.

"Without a home to go back to and an identity, my life is pointless," he said.

"Research shows that the three-month period after prison release is critical in determining recidivism rates," Li said.

So the goal was to relieve Du's anxiety and build his self-reliance and a sense of worth. Efforts were also made to assist him with his registration dilemma.

Looking outside from behind bars, 'cowards' face a day of reckoning
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

An inmate consults a bank clerk in a simulated bank setting behind bars.

By the time Du was released, police officers had done a lot in order to solve his registration problem and get a job. On the night before he walked out of the prison gates, he wrote a letter thanking staff for all their efforts.

"I have never felt so much love," he wrote. "I will work hard and be worthy of all your help."

Anxiety about being reunited with family and friends is a major focus of the release transition program.

Every month, about 10 prisoners participate in "play acting" sessions about family dynamics, said Xu Dong, director of the prison's psychological health department.

"During the 'performance,' inmates may experience the pain of being rebuffed by family or friends," Xu said. "After that, psychological sessions help them share and confront their feelings about rejection. Many men cry during the activity."

A prisoner surnamed Liu, who was imprisoned for illegal lending, was shunned by his family after his incarceration. His father thought Liu had brought disgrace to the family and refused to talk with him for many years.

Li Gaoqing, a prison officer and psychology tutor, and his colleagues developed a play-acting scenario where a criminal is released but his father won't allow him to enter the house. Liu was asked to play the role of the father to force him to see the situation from his own father's perspective.

Looking outside from behind bars, 'cowards' face a day of reckoning
Ti Gong

Psychological health tutor Li Gaoqing (center) guides prisoners through a play-acting drama focusing on family ties.

The situation made Liu recall the disappointment in his parents' eyes when he was arrested. He sobbed in recollection.

Under the guidance of Li and his colleagues, Liu was encouraged to write a letter of apology to his father. When his father agreed to talk with him on the allowed monthly phone call, Liu was overcome with gratitude – a first step toward reintegration.

Police officer Li Miao said the impact of the pre-release program has been assessed by follow-up visits with more than a thousand releases. The rate of recidivism among program "graduates" was found to be only 3.88 percent – much lower than that among those who hadn't participated in the program.

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