Social Science - Other

How the Prison System Works in China

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The prison system in China is governed by the Prison Law of the People's Republic of China (1994). This law is based on the Chinese constitution, Article 28:

"The State maintains public order and suppresses treasonable and other counter-revolutionary activities; it penalizes acts that endanger public security and disrupt the socialist economic and other criminal activities, and punishes and reforms criminals."

There are 5 levels of sanctions in the Chinese prison system: control, criminal detention, fixed-term imprisonment, life imprisonment, and the death penalty. Control is the only criminal penalty which does not involve a separate place of detention. Criminal detention penalties are served in a local detention house. The other 3 levels of sanctions are all served in a non-local prison.


Control, also known as soft detention, is the Chinese equivalent of the ankle bracelet in the United States. A person sentenced to control continues to work normally and receive his normal wages, but is supervised and is required to check in periodically. This penalty is used for minor criminal offenses.

Some political dissidents are also punished through control, although their movements may be more tightly restricted. In its most permissive form, the person may not travel beyond his home district, but is not restricted beyond that. At its most restrictive, the person is confined to his own house and under constant surveillance.

Local detention

This penalty is used for minor criminal offenses which are slightly more serious than those punishable only by control. The maximum penalty is 6 months. Items such as belts and shoelaces are not removed upon incarceration. The incarcerated person may go home for up to 2 days each month, and may be paid for his work.

Reform through labor

Being paid for work is an important difference between the previous 2 levels of sanctions and the next 3 because of the Chinese idea of reform through labor. Crimes which are punished with the first 2 levels of sanctions are so minor that reform through labor is not required, so the person may continue to be paid for his labor.

The 3 levels of sanctions which are served in non-local prisons all make use of reform through labor. Inmates are required to work a minimum of 8 hours of hard labor a day, 6 days a week. The prison can ask permission to extend the workday to 12 hours. However, in practise, the required piecework for the day's work may take even longer. Discussion is not permitted during work.

A prisoner is expected to labor as long as he has the ability to labor. In theory, prison sentences can be reduced by up to half the original sentence through meritorious service and repentance. A death penalty with 2 years reprieve can be converted to a life sentence in this way.


Fixed-term imprisonment is used for most felonies. The term is between 6 months and 15 years. Typical offenses at this level are petty theft, prostitution, and low-end drug trafficking. Using drugs is not a criminal offense in China, but possession of illegal drugs is.

More severe crimes are punished with life imprisonment. These inmates must serve at least 10 years of their sentence before a reduction can be considered for good behavior.

The death penalty is only carried out immediately for the most serious crimes. Most prisoners sentenced to the death penalty receive a 2-year suspension of execution. During this time, they have a chance to prove themselves through meritorious service and repentance. With continued good behavior, this kind of life sentence can be reduced to between 15 and 20 years plus the 2 original years.


Chinese prisons are divided by gender, with guards of the same gender as the prisoners. Male prisoners have their heads shaved.

Many prisons are overcrowded, with minimal heating or air conditioning. The lights may be on around the clock. Water is rationed, and there may not be any hot water at all. Some cells have no furniture at all, and the prisoners are expected to sleep on the floor.

The prisoner is expected to provide his own bedding, towels, toothpaste, soap, and any other hygiene necessities. Most prisoners supply their own clothing as well, to which prison stripes are attached. All other personal items are confiscated upon being admitted to prison, including all valuables and even shoes. The prisoner brings his own slippers or goes barefoot.

The prison will provide basic medical treatment and basic meals 3 times a day. Prisoners may purchase extra food and other limited items at the prison store.

Prisoners are restricted to reading materials provided by the prison, or may subscribe, at their own cost, to a publication on a list of approved reading materials. They may not speak any language or dialect which the guards do not understand, or may not speak at all outside study sessions. In some prisons, prisoners are required to study politics, law, state policies, and current events for 2 hours daily, including an hour in group discussion.

Each prisoner is currently allowed a single visit each month, although new reforms allow 2 visits. Letters are permitted, but are censored. Some prisons allow packages, but may not allow food to be sent in. All packages are searched. Prisoners have no telephone access.

More about this author: Michael Totten

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