Local female prison offers oral English course for inmates

The course is aimed at increasing the job skills of female prisoners to help them integrate back into society after their release.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A prisoner shows her English words which describe her feelings after finishing the oral English course.

Shanghai Women’s Prison, which prides itself on preparing inmates for life after jail, instituted an oral English class six months ago — the first of its kind in the city's prison system.

The course is aimed at increasing the job skills of female prisoners to help them integrate back into society after their release.

Last week, 16 inmates completed the first semester of the course, which was designed by a team led by Li Tianqi, an English teacher from Shanghai Normal University. The project is sponsored by the Shanghai Women's Federation.

“The course is based on various games and tasks,” said Li. “It focuses on practical daily use of English. Much of the curriculum was put into practice during games periods.”

Li and her team designed all the game activities like role-play where the inmates could play whoever they wanted to be in different situations.

“By playing games and simulating real life, the class aims to provoke thinking and individual ideas,” said Li. “That’s a good way for these women to learn the language effectively.”

Shanghai Daily talked with several inmates. Their names have been altered to protect their privacy.

An inmate named Lily took one of the 20 places available for the course. She was incarcerated after committing a robbery in 2012 and assigned to the prison’s sixth ward, where foreign criminals are mostly housed.

“I was trying to communicate with them, but I could hardly even recognize the 26 letters of the English alphabet,” Lily said. “When I heard the English lessons would be started, I immediately applied.”

In role-playing, she assumed the role of the manager of a bus station.

Lily told Shanghai Daily with obvious pride that she was recently able to understand more than half of an article written by a fellow foreign inmate.

“Six months ago, I was illiterate, and now I can even read some poetry,” she said.

Another inmate named Helena was a hotel receptionist until she was arrested at age 19 for drug dealing in 2009.

“I regret that a lot, but what’s done is done,” she said ruefully as she looks forward to her release next year. “I hope I can continue learning English and enrich myself after I’m out. It’s a great skill to help me find a job.”

The course, she added, has given her a new sense of self-confidence.

Low esteem is a common problem among inmates, said prison officials. Many worry about life after they get out and are afraid of what awaits them.

“If you remove their criminal backgrounds, these are just ordinary women who are concerned about families and loved ones,” said the prison warden. “We want them to atone for their crimes, but we also want them to be able to resume responsible lives afterward. The more skills we give them, the better they can integrate.”

Li told Shanghai Daily that 11 of the inmates who completed the first semester had no prior knowledge of English. Still, they have a long way to go before they attain fluency.

“But the course is popular with inmates, which tells you something about its worth,” she said.

“I’m confident that some of them will reach a level where they could easily get by in an English-speaking country.”

The course is expected to continue next year. The inmates are looking forward to having more chance to participate.

Shanghai Women’s Prison, founded in 1996, holds most of the city’s convicted female criminals.

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