Prison official Yang Mugao says more visits, no armed police, and all women wardens in his first book calling for more research and gender-specific policies in China’s women’s prisons.

Yang Mugao

Filling a significant gap in research on China’s criminal justice system, Chinese Female Offenders: Corrections System Research (中国女犯矫正制度研究) has been called the first theoretical monograph since 1949 to offer systematic research into women’s corrections in China. Published in September 2012 by Nanjing University Press, the book is Yang Mugao’s (杨木高) attempt to weave together his own research with a patchwork of often spotty information on China’s women’s prisons.* A native of Jiangsu’s Xuyi County, Yang is the deputy director of the Jiangsu Prison Administration Bureau’s Reform and Education Department. He is a certified counselor and has conducted extensive research on criminology, prison studies, and psychology.

His book comes two years after the United Nations General Assembly responded to worldwide growth in the number of women in prison by passing Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules). A section of his book is devoted to the Bangkok Rules, which Yang describes as a positive force in guaranteeing the rights of women and promoting scientific prison management governed by the rule of law.

In its 15 chapters, Chinese Female Offenders does more than recap legal frameworks. Yang does a laudable job of bringing together disparate data and indicating general trends, providing a broad sketch of issues ranging from prison staff, management and reform of incarcerated women and girls, and community corrections. For those interested in finding examples of specific prisons offering models or targets for reform, however, the book leaves something to be desired. For example, while Yang mentions that overcrowding is a serious problem at some institutions, it is not clear how many and which prisons are overcrowded and what countermeasures are employed.

China's Women Prisoners

Changing the Law

With this book Yang hopes to inspire more dedicated research and drive the enactment of gender-specific corrections policies. In a 2011 article, he proposed amending China’s nearly 20-year-old Prison Law to include a section on women. In his more recent book, he takes the proposal a step further by including his own version of draft management regulations for women’s prisons. The rules include stipulations that armed police not be stationed on site; wardenship be reserved for women; standard police-to-prisoner ratios be increased; and women prisoners receive longer and more frequent visits than their male counterparts.

China’s Prison Law stipulates that all prisons have armed police to cope with potential instability, but Yang argues that the law should be changed. He says that armed police are an unnecessary expenditure for women’s prisons because women present fewer escape attempts and tend to be less violent. Of 10 women’s prisons Yang studied, armed police were stationed in only four.

Keeping Women on the Frontline

Since men are restricted from entering certain areas of women’s prisons without the company of female staff, women’s prisons require a relatively high proportion of female personnel. However, recruiting and retaining women has proven difficult. National standards currently require that women’s and men’s prisons maintain police-to-prisoner ratios of 18 percent with about one frontline officer for every thirteen prisoners. Most women’s prisons fall short of these requirements. Ratios are particularly low in Yunnan and Hunan. Research cited by Yang states that in 2005, Yunnan No.3 Women’s Prison had one frontline staff member for every 23 prisoners, while Hunan had a ratio of 1 to 20. Sheer prisoner numbers are also high in Yunnan: 10,000 of the 93,000 women in Chinese prisons are in Yunnan’s three women’s prisons (many of them foreign nationals). Most other provinces only have one prison.

Yang advocates raising the standard police-to-prisoner ratio at women’s prisons to 25 percent. If put into practice, he believes this would help compensate for things like early retirement—women are legally obligated to retire five years earlier than men—and maternity leave that come with more women employees. Research cited by Yang states that insufficient numbers of frontline police officers means fewer than half of female police working at women’s prisons are able to take annual leave. It is also common for women on the frontlines to log 10-hour days.

Due to excessive workloads, a considerable number of women are either not willing to work in women’s prisons or request transfers out of them, Yang writes. Perhaps because of this, only 16 of China’s 36 women’s prisons have wardens who are women.

Longer, More Frequent Visits

While better conditions for prison staff would presumably trickle down into better conditions for prisoners, Yang also addresses ways in which the treatment of prisoners could be directly improved. He recommends that women receive longer and more frequent visitations than adult male prisoners. This is probably because women are more likely to be the primary caregivers of young children. For women with children under the age of 10, his draft management regulations stipulate visits of up to eight hours in an area specifically designed for the visits. Rather than having visitors continue to be separated by a pane of glass, he thinks mothers should be able to hug and play with their young children—a proposal reminiscent of, if significantly less liberal than, the Norwegian practice granting children overnight visits in apartments outfitted with toys.

16 of China’s 36 women’s prisons have women wardens

Beijing Women’s Prison Warden Li Ruihua (center) speaks to a woman incarcerated at the prison. Photo credit: People’s Daily

Girls Behind Bars

Children don’t only appear at women’s prisons as visitors. While the Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that juveniles in custody should be held, managed, and educated separately from adults, separate facilities are not always dedicated to young women (ages 14–18). This may be because each province usually has less than 20 young women in custody. Since cell blocks at women’s prisons generally hold 200–250 people, young women are unlikely to be housed in their own cell blocks and are thus at greater risk of being subjected to a daily regimen that overlooks their developmental needs. Yang writes that in some locales, juveniles held in women’s prisons are given full-day work assignments in lieu of compulsory education.

To combat this problem, Yang encourages the use of non-custodial punishments for young women and girls. Recommended in the Criminal Law for youth who commit minor offenses, non-custodial punishments were given to 42 percent of juveniles adjudicated in 2012, up from 35 percent in 2008. Data on community corrections is not disaggregated by sex, but according to Yang, the number of women and girls who benefit from custodial alternatives is exceedingly low. Compounding the issue, community corrections have yet to develop a robust contingent of female staff, partnerships with women’s rights advocates, and sufficiently diverse program offerings.

Whether discussing individuals serving sentences inside or outside prisons, Yang ultimately believes that a field of study dedicated to women’s corrections is necessary to promote women’s rights in a system focused on men. The field will not be one led by prisons alone, but supported by women’s rights advocates and China’s women’s studies scholars—who Yang says have so far paid little attention to women prisoners. A feminist perspective is necessary, not least of which because Yang’s own analysis at times appears reliant on gender stereotypes—for example, he states that the social relations at women’s prisons can be tense since, as the Chinese idiom goes, “three women are enough for a drama.”

Descriptive and comparative information on other carceral institutions like reeducation through labor and custody and education would also provide a clearer picture of the state of the field and help shape gender-specific policies. Despite a long history of marginalization, growth in the number of women in prison as well as increasing support for women’s rights has brought women’s corrections to the fore, and it is time for awareness to lead to action. ■

*Note: Chinese Female Offenders does not discuss reeducation through labor, custody and education camps, and other forms of detention; as such, these forms of detention, which are estimated to restrict the liberty of tens of thousands of Chinese women, are not discussed in this article.

Help promote humanitarian treatment and increased transparency at China’s women prisons

Dui Hua is organizing a Sino-International Conference on the Bangkok Rules in Hong Kong in February 2014 in partnership with Renmin Law School’s Center for Criminal Procedure & Reform, Hong Kong University’s Centre for Comparative & Public Law, and Penal Reform International. Grants will offset some of the costs, but we still need your help.
Donate today or find out more