Dozens of prisoners with blue uniforms sit in the midday sun in Lhasa, Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, while having lunch and chatting in the prison yard. On the wall near them is a 50-meter-long picture featuring iconic Tibetan landscapes such as Potala Palace, Namtso Lake and Gangdise Mountain.
Behind the prisoners is a two-story dormitory with Tibetan style decorations on the ceiling. Glass frames carrying inspirational quotes in Tibetan and Chinese from famous people including the 10th Panchen Lama and French author Victor Hugo hang on the corridor wall.
The Tibet Autonomous Region Prison holds around 1,000 prisoners, and is the biggest one in the region. Female prisoners, foreign prisoners, prisoners convicted of endangering national security, involvement in the cult group Falun Gong and participating in the deadly March 14 riots in 2008 are currently serving sentences, including death penalty with probation, Danzeng Gelie, an official with the prison told the Global Times reporter who visited in mid-March. Female inmates are jailed separately.
The Tibet regional government respects the human rights of ethnic minority prisoners and foreign prisoners, providing them with basic education, job training, freedom to use their own language and also organizing celebrations of their traditional holidays.
Prison officials rejected overseas media reports claiming at least three “re-education camps” are currently under construction in Tibet. “There is no such thing in Tibet,” officials said.
Prisoners from the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison attend an art performance in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison
Reformation through education is a key part of the Tibet regional prison, where the majority of prisoners are ethnic minorities with a low level of literacy.
“The prison has compiled its own textbooks in both Tibetan and Putonghua, and has conducted bilingual education of Chinese, Tibetan language and math for Tibetan prisoners since 2012,” Danzeng said.
Prisoners attend three classes each day from Monday to Friday, and they also learn to read and write ancient Chinese literature and classics. Prisoners under the age of 45 are encouraged to receive education.
Prisoners’ textbooks and exercise books are contained in a black bag provided by the prison, and prisoners practice math questions, and write Chinese characters and Tibetan characters in their exercise books. Comments in red are left by the prison teachers, most of whom are prison police.
A Tibetan inmate who received seven years of education in the prison was able to speak fluent Putonghua and Tibetan. He told the Global Times in Putonghua and English that besides receiving an education, he also taught himself English through books and movies provided by the prison, and wanted to be a tour guide after completing his 13-year sentence for larceny.
In another example, an Uyghur prisoner from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region who used to call Han people “indifferent” is now friends with his Han inmates after learning Putonghua for two years, Danzeng said.
“The education in prison improved the understanding between different ethnic groups and strengthened prisoners’ sense of national identity,” Danzeng said.
As most foreign prisoners are Nepalese, the prison police also compiled text books in Nepali and English. Foreign prisoners are encouraged but not obliged to receive education, according to Danzeng.
Aside from acquiring knowledge from textbooks, prisoners also receive job training in sewing, cooking, carving as well as electric welding, according to materials provided by the prison.
A prisoner plays guitar during the show. Photo: Courtesy of the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison
The signs on different rooms and the notices pasted on the billboard were all written in both Putonghua and Tibetan. Some were also written in English.
“Prisoners are allowed to use their own language to communicate with their inmates or families and lawyers during visiting hours,” Danzeng said.
During traditional holidays for ethnic minorities and foreign prisoners, the prison organizes various celebration activities, and inmates can even wear their own traditional costumes to sing and dance.
Some prisoners also write songs on Tibet’s scenery and traditional Tibetan medicine to promote their
culture, according to the prison.
For Muslim prisoners, the prison cooks halal meals using a special stove that is kept separate from other stoves by a glass wall to prevent smoke from drifting between them.
The prison also brought in a vending machine that prisoners can use to buy daily necessities including clothes, beverages and snacks with their bank cards.
The Global Times reporter found that a bottle of soft drink from the machine cost 4 yuan, about 2 yuan cheaper than those sold in Lhasa’s supermarkets.
The prison also makes sure the prisoners’ psychological conditions are taken care of.
On the door of each dorm, prisoners stick mood cards with images of faces showing the emotions they are feeling that day. The prison’s psychologists will talk to and help those with sad faces glued to their doors.
Anyone suffering depression can go to a psychological counselling room in the prison and relieve their stress by hitting a punch bag or seeking consultation.
Newspaper headline: Right to reform