Societies have many reasons for imprisoning their citizens. They may use penal systems to punish or deter criminal actions, to incapacitate those deemed a threat to society, or to reform or correct illegal or socially unacceptable behavior. Regardless of the stated purposes of its penal system, every nation must contend with the fact that the individuals in its prisons were once members of a free society and that most will eventually be released back into the communities from which they came. Prison systems must balance the need to separate a prisoner from society and the legal requirements to keep a prisoner connected to family and friends on the outside.

Striking this balance is especially important in the United States and China, the two countries with the largest prison populations in the world. The United States additionally boasts the world’s highest rate of incarceration. If recent incarceration rates do not change, an estimated one out of every fifteen Americans will serve time in prison during their lifetime, according to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Another Bureau report revealed that a majority of US prisoners had at least one child under the age of 18 in 1999 and that more than two percent of children in the United States had a parent in prison.

With such strong ties between the greater society and those who are imprisoned, contact between prisoners and those on the outside is vital. Maintaining contact keeps inmates connected with a world they will eventually re-enter and provides emotional and financial support to prisoners.

Prisoners in both the United States and China keep ties with family and friends through letters and visits, and visitation and mail access are legally protected in both countries. US courts have usually ruled that general-population prisoners have some first amendment rights to telephone and mail privileges and eighth amendment rights to visitation, while in China, visitation and mail access are granted to sentenced prisoners in the official Prison Law regulations. In practical application, however, neither country always abides by the ideals set forth in its laws.

Incarceration and Communication
The variety of prison facilities in China and the United States makes it difficult to generalize about communication rights for prisoners. After being arrested in the United States, individuals awaiting trial or serving very short sentences are held in jails typically run by a county or city. Since those awaiting trial are presumed innocent, restrictions on their access to communication must be conducted through due process of law. After sentencing, most US prisoners are transported to state or federal facilities to serve their terms. Inmates who are also US citizens still retain constitutional rights to communication privileges.

Like US prisoners, Chinese prisoners may be held in a wide variety of penal institutions. When a person is arrested in China, he or she is usually first held in a local police station. From there, the individual is taken to a detention facility to await trial. Chinese prisoners held in detention facilities are not permitted visitors or to receive mail, and they may not have access to these privileges even up until their case goes to trial. Those convicted at trial are placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and generally serve sentences in prisons run at the provincial level, where they are guaranteed—at least in theory—some visitation and letter-writing privileges under Chinese law.

However, many other Chinese detainees are sent to “re-education-through-labor” camps, drug treatment camps or other kinds of special detention facilities. The Chinese government does not consider these individuals to be prisoners—and does not release statistics on these populations—but the International Centre for Prison Studies, based at King’s College in London, estimates as many as a million people are incarcerated in such facilities.

Conditions for Letters and Phone Calls
For prisoners who want to get in touch with a loved one, the primary and most common form of communication is a letter. US prisoners are free to correspond with almost anyone on the outside. With the exception of some confidential mail, such as mail to and from legal counsel, all prisoner mail in the United States may be reviewed by prison staff. However, mail is generally only censored if it poses a legitimate safety concern. At many prisons, inmates may also receive photos from loved ones. Other goods, such as food and sundry items, cannot be mailed directly but can be purchased for inmates and sent through approved vendors.

Official prison mail policy in China is far more restrictive than in the United States. By law, Chinese prisoners are only allowed to correspond with family members. Also, all mail is screened except for correspondence sent to judicial or higher-level prison administrators. Mail that is found to impede a prisoner’s reform or reveal sensitive prison information may be confiscated. Still, the government does make some allowances. Minority prisoners, for example, can write in their native language, and prisoners who are foreign nationals may correspond with their families and representatives of their government. All other correspondence is prohibited. As already noted, these policies only apply to those held in China’s formal prison system and not to many other types of detainees.

US prisoners can also access pay telephones, which are monitored in much the same way as mail. Chinese prisoners officially cannot use payphones, but this restriction is more likely due to the historical lack of fixed phone lines in China than a difference of penal principles.

Dui Hua has found that, in actual practice, communication privileges for Chinese prisoners can be more lenient or more restrictive, often depending on the prisoner. On the one hand, Dui Hua was recently in touch with a prisoner who was able to make regular phone calls in English and even access the Internet, which is unheard of in US prisons. At the other extreme, Dui Hua is aware of prisoners in China who have been held for years without access to letters.

Prison Visitation Policies
US policies toward visitation vary widely but are not nearly as restrictive as official Chinese ones. In most cases in the United States, any individual may visit a prisoner, although all visitors must be pre-approved, and certain categories of people, such as parolees, tend to be denied approval except under extraordinary circumstances. US prisoners with clean disciplinary records often receive contact visits—when inmates meet face-to-face with friends and family without separation by a glass partition—and six states also allow conjugal visits for spouses. Inmates with disciplinary histories or who pose security concerns, however, may be restricted to non-contact visits behind glass.

Chinese prisoners can only be visited by family members, and at most twice per month. The frequency of visits is often based more on the whims of custody staff than official law. For a criminal convicted of a simple property crime and sentenced to a Ministry of Justice facility, visits might be quite regular. In fact, a recent survey found that about 50 percent of prisoners in China reported that they were granted visits at least once a month. Still, Dui Hua recently highlighted the case of a Chinese political prisoner serving a life sentence whose regular visits with family members were threatened to be disallowed after details of his prison conditions drew media attention.

Visitors to individuals in US prisons are not permitted to bring items directly to inmates. Instead, loved ones can send quarterly packages through vendors or deposit money in an inmate’s trust account that can be used to purchase goods from the prison commissary. But in China, where prisons do not provide basic necessities, an inmate’s family is actually expected to supply these items, and can bring in packages with bedding, towels, toothpaste, soap, sanitary napkins, and other goods.

In both countries, the most significant barrier to visitation may not be prison policy, but prison location. Prisons tend to be constructed in remote places where land is inexpensive, especially in the United States, where community objections frequently prevent prisons to be built near large residential areas. Without access to convenient and affordable public transportation, family members may be unable to make the trip to visit a loved one behind bars, regardless of whether such a visit is allowed by law. In fact, a majority of federal and state prisoners in the United States report serving their sentences more than 100 miles from their previous residence.

Gaps between Principle and Practice
Both Chinese and US laws protect some forms of communication between prisoners and their families. However, these guarantees remain inconsistent, impractical, and incomplete. Official Chinese law even glaringly omits regulations for visitation and correspondence with those held in detention centers (as opposed to prisoners in Ministry of Justice facilities). Despite legal protections, Chinese prisoners whose rights are violated lack recourse to take their grievances to courts or an independent monitoring body.

It is possible that a great majority of regular Chinese prisoners who are not deemed a threat to the state do receive letters and visitors regularly. Even if this is the case, it is also true that, for high-profile or political prisoners, access to the outside world is a privilege granted unevenly at the discretion of local prison officials. As long as inconsistent practices continue in China—as well as in the United States—respect for prisoner communication rights will be judged not just on the basis of law, but on the frequency and severity of instances when it is ignored.