Joyful reunions for a few lucky prisoners

Lu Agen from Shanghai Tilanqiao Prison was one of the inmates selected for a five-day release. When he returned to jail, inmates surrounded him, asking him about the outside world.

All the prisoners released from three city jails to spend time with their families over the Spring Festival have returned 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 in downtown Hongkou District 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. “And people now prefer to use smartphones to buy things, instead of cash or credit cards.”

His wife had given him 2,000 yuan of cash (US$315) to buy items in a supermarket during the festival, 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 suppliers who turned out to be smugglers. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Inside, he has behaved himself and his sentence was reduced by more than a year. His good behavior also 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, 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. The apartment looked much the same as it did seven years ago, though the sofa, air conditioner and TV were all new.

Then they 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, I saw more than 20 people waiting for me, including my parents-in-law, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces,” he said. “I hugged with my siblings and had red eyes. We were all full of mixed feelings to see each other with 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 am. He said he missed me badly and asked me when I would be released.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Lu Agen returns to Shanghai Tilanqiao Prison after spending five days at home.

It was the first time in seven years for his siblings and those of his wife to gather together for the New Year's Eve dinner. When he was absent, nobody wanted to organize such a celebration.

A brother-in-law, who used to run a restaurant, 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 the family chatted about work and life, as well as their children’s marriages or love affairs.

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. The latter is still unmarried, but hopes his father will be present when he marries.

“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 every 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 his return to 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 his inmates. “We all admire at his fortune to get the opportunity for family gathering at the special occasion for Chinese people. It also gives me a hope that luck will also fall on me one day if I keep behaving well,” said a prisoner surnamed Xu.

Xu was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for a notes 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.

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.

However, the Ministry of Justice decided to resurrect the program after conducting a comprehensive survey as it is regarded as an effective way to prepare prisoners for rehabilitation.

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.

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