Family reunions with a difference – behind prison bars

Tian Shengjie
Shanghai Juntianhu Prison has arranged a feast for 12 inmates and their families to celebrate the upcoming festival and as an incentive for other prisoners to rehabilitate.
Tian Shengjie

Shot by Jiang Xiaowei. Edited by Jiang Xiaowei. Reported by Tian Shengjie. Subtitles by Tian Shengjie.

The Spring Festival is a time for family reunions, people behind bars included.

For this special occasion, Shanghai Juntianhu Prison has arranged a reunion feast for 12 inmates and their families as an incentive for active rehabilitation.

"No matter how hard I try, I feel that the shape of the vegetables I cut for the reunion meal is not perfect," prisoner Wang Lin told Shanghai Daily the night before the feast.

The 43-year-old is responsible for cooking in the prison with other inmates of Cell Block Ⅵ. Because of his good attitude regarding confession, repentance and rehabilitation, Wang became one of 12 lucky prisoners.

Wang was sentenced to eight years in 2019 for embezzlement. For the past five years, he and his family have just had phone contact because his parents were too old to visit the prison in Anhui Province from their hometown in Henan Province.

"On the phone, my parents always encourage me to reflect and rehabilitate. They are my strongest support but I cannot be theirs," Wang said.

In the past, as chairman of a company, he was the family's main breadwinner. After he was arrested, he was distressed that his nearly 70-year-old father had to find a job to support the family.

"My family often tell me good news but not bad news, so I don't know how they are getting on," he said with tears.

Family reunions with a difference – behind prison bars
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Three prisoners from Cell Block Ⅵ cook food for the reunion feast at Shanghai Juntianhu Prison.

This reunion feast is an opportunity for Wang to have a face-to-face talk with his parents, and he also hoped to express his guilt and gratitude to them by carefully preparing the meal.

There are five dishes and one soup on the menu, including pot-stewed beef, red-braised mutton and chicken stewed with mushrooms, as well as pork dumplings that most Chinese families will eat during the festival.

A prisoner, surnamed Zhu, who is making pot-stewed beef, said that although he was not one of the 12, he was happy for them.

He Ke, director of the prison's reform and education department, said: "Since I started working in the prison in 2015, I have never seen a reunion feast held behind bars."

He added that this unique reunion is also a motivation for other prisoners, letting them know that as long as they sincerely confess and rehabilitate, they may also reunite with their families during their sentence.

Family reunions with a difference – behind prison bars
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

During the reunion, a prisoner holds hands with his family in the prison.

The night before the big day was a sleepless night for many prisoners and their families, including prisoner Ye Mou's parents. His 60-year-old father said that they arrived near the prison a day early from home after driving for over three hours.

Although they met every two to three months behind a plate glass window during Ye's 3-year imprisonment, he and his wife were still too excited to sleep at night, Ye's father said.

The due morning was misty and rainy. Headed by policemen, 22 family members of prisoners stepped into the prison.

Wang was filled with emotion when his parents entered. He knelt down before them and they embraced and burst into tears.

Wang took off his parent' masks and carefully caressed their wrinkled faces. During the reunion, they held hands tightly. Wang prepared tea for them to express his respect and gratitude.

Family reunions with a difference – behind prison bars
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Wang's father wipes his son's tears during their prison reunion.

A reunion meal to celebrate Spring Festival is heartier than a regular meal. But Wang and his family didn't eat much. They were immersed in the joy of reunion and the significance of the meal went beyond the food itself.

However, Ye's family were calm. When they met, they just shook hands.

"We are very excited to see our son, but violent mood swings are not good for him. After we return home, he may suffer the psychological gap between a happy gathering and imprisonment life. Therefore, I advised my wife not to show too much about our sorrow or joy to him," Ye's father said.

On the same day, these family members visited the prison cell, courtroom, psychology health guidance room and education center. They also watched a 2.5-hour theatrical performance performed by inmates, including Ye's solo performance on the hulusi (a kind of Chinese flute) and Wang's Chen-style tai chi.

Family reunions with a difference – behind prison bars
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Prisoners and 22 family members watch a theatrical performance by inmates on Wednesday.

"In some TV dramas, there are often scenes of poor living conditions and violent law enforcement in prison, which made me worried about my son, although he always tells me that everything is good behind bars," Ye's father said.

"Today is my first time entering prison. I am surprised by the good life, study and rehabilitation environment inside high walls, which let me feel at ease."

After the eight-hour visit and reunion ended, prisoners' longing for home may become the driving force of continuing rehabilitation. Among family messages, the most frequent words written by prisoners' relatives are: "Be a good person and we are waiting for you to go home."

(Pseudonyms are used to protect the prisoners' privacy.)

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