Women in Prison Meet Their Mothers

March 11, 2014
Editor: Frank Zhao


Women in Prison Meet Their Mothers
Inmates learn embroidery at the prison. [Courtesy of Shanghai Women's Prison]

Women in prison are a darker side of Women's Day and Shanghai Daily gets a rare look behind bars in the city's only women's prison. Mothers meet their inmate daughters a special activity to promote rehabilitation.

A female prison inmate sheds her gray uniform and puts on a white dress, high heels and pink lipstick. Playing the role of an inmate's mother, she stands on stage and emotionally talks to her "daughter," played by a silent inmate in uniform.

"You were always such a good girl and you did so well. We had such high hopes for you. I don't know where we went wrong and how you ended up here. I only hope you can build a better life," the "mother" said, echoing the words of many mothers whose daughters are in prison.

This sketch, performed in front of 100 inmates, was one of the events leading up Women's Day today at Shanghai Women's Prison in suburban Songjiang District. It houses more than 1,000 inmates, the prison is packed, for crimes ranging from drug offenses, theft and assault to embezzlement, fraud and murder.

In another moving event, mothers and daughters took the stage, held hands and talked about their own stories.

According to national Legal Daily, China had around 1.65 million inmates, both men and women, in 681 jails in 2012. In 2003, women represented 4 percent of the prison population. That would make the number of women inmates more than 65,600 today, but it's probably much higher.

Marriage Unlikely

Some inmates are spending their lives in prison. Others, after their release, will be too stigmatized or old to marry and bear children, considered essential for Chinese women. Married women inmates are not allowed conjugal visits, but children can visit monthly.

Shanghai Daily was allowed a rare visit on Wednesday to the city's only women's prison, reporting on carefully scripted activities and meetings between mothers and daughters. The inmates and their mothers available for interviews were from different background.

The prison adopts a new approach to rehabilitation, involving the participation of inmates' mothers, and tapping women's emotions to motivate them to change.

White-haired Wu Fang (not her real first name), a 67-year-old retiree from Shanghai, peeped through black iron bars to look at her daughter's dormitory, shared with eight to 12 women. It's simply furnished and equipped with a toilet and a TV set.

Wu holds eight pages of paper, filled with all the things she wants to say to her 37-year-old daughter (not identified), an MBA holder imprisoned for embezzlement from the company where she was head accountant. She had worked her way up from cashier. She was sentenced to six years behind bars and has served two.

"You were always a filial and ambitious child. As your mother, I do not blame you. I want to help you and will always be with you," Wu said.

Wu was among three mothers invited to meet their daughters for Women's Day in a living area, instead of a sterile visiting room.

"I was shocked when police arrested my daughter and said she committed a crime," Wu recalled, sitting next to her daughter on stage before an audience of around 100 inmates. Holding hands, they both smiled.

Wu was distraught, unable to eat or sleep for several days after her daughter was taken away in handcuffs. "How could such a good daughter become a prisoner?" she asked aloud.

"I finally realized that we didn't communicate enough. Though I had realized that my only child was too self-centered, I thought she was living a good life with a good job and income," Wu said. She was also married.

Most of the inmates have been convicted of fraud, violence and drug-related crimes.

Women do light factory work, sewing, making paper products and electronic components for five days or 40 hours a week. They receive very small wages that they spend at the prison commissary.

They have one day off a week and one day for education when they can read and study. Many are illiterate and better-educated inmates help them.

All women wear the same gray uniforms, each with a number, and cotton shoes. Their hair is cut short. No one wears makeup. The regimentation is semi-military.

After her daughter was imprisoned, Wu read books and watched TV and films about women prisoners. It wasn't a pretty picture.

"I'm very reassured after seeing this environment," said Wu. "But I am more reassured by the changes I see in my daughter."

Despite holding an MBA, Wu's daughter was unable to take care of her daily life and couldn't, or wouldn't, even make her own bed. She was absorbed by her work and unsurprisingly, her marriage failed. Divorce made her even more self-involved and less concerned about the feelings of others.

Since she didn't communicate much, Wu wrote letters to her. Families are allowed to make regular calls and to visit once a month for 15 to 40 minutes.

Today Wu's daughter is more outgoing and willing to help other inmates who need assistance with studies, says a vice warden surnamed Li.

"I was so surprised when my daughter told me she had a regular life and realized that an ordinary life is a happy life," Wu said. "She regretted pursuing money and power at the cost of her marriage."

At the mother-daughter meeting, 29-year-old Wang Ting (not her real name) said many things that she had never said before. Wang, a former Internet addict, was sentenced to 14 years for online fraud in which she stole around a million yuan (US$163,414) to pay for gaming. She has served five years. 

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