Trailblazer reaches out to inmates on death row

Updated: 2013-07-16 00:54

By ZHAO YINAN (China Daily)

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Most counseling psychologists attempt to heal mental wounds and prepare a person for life. Shang Li prepares her "patients" for death.

A correctional officer for 12 years, she has spent much of her career working on death row at Tianjin First Custody Center, the city's only prison with female inmates.

She was the first guard there to obtain a national certificate in psychology, sparking major changes in the mental healthcare offered to convicts, especially those facing execution.

"Every prisoner on death row is a closed book that needs patience, care and technique to read," said the 37-year-old, who is now deputy director of the center after previously serving as head of the women's unit.

"They tend to stay isolated, so counseling helps to understand them and build trust," she said. "Hopefully, with my assistance, inmates on death row can have peace of mind in the final moments of their lives."

The custody center is in a remote western suburb of the northern port city. Approaching its large, green, iron gates and high walls, the only sounds are the echo of footsteps and the sporadic barking of dogs from a village.

The single prison block houses women inmates on the top floor and men on the levels below.

Shang was recruited as a correctional officer after graduating with a degree in computer science from a teaching college.

"When I arrived, I treated everything like it was black and white — all criminals were bad people," she said. "But as I got to know the inmates, I realized that although they had made mistakes they still deserved care like anyone else."

As she talked, we passed through the women's cell unit. Through small windows in the doors, about a dozen inmates in bright orange uniforms could be seen in each cell, all seated on wooden floors. On the walls were flat-screen TVs and air-conditioning units.

Despite making some initial progress, Shang said she was still baffled about how to communicate with those on death row. So, in her spare time, she began to study psychology to better understand and relate to inmates.

"I was inspired by a course on psychological education in college, which was designed to help teachers find out more about their students," she said. "Although I didn't go on to become a teacher, the method provided useful experience for my job."

One of the times she used this knowledge was to help a prisoner sentenced to death for drug smuggling and murder.

When the woman, surnamed Li, arrived at the center, she was awaiting the result of her final appeal. She rarely talked, Shang recalled, and kept a good distance from everyone, "but I could see she was deeply upset about something."

Then, one day, Li got into a fight with a cellmate, who claimed that Li's tossing and turning in bed had disturbed her sleep. Li was given counseling, which initially helped calm her before uncovering the root cause of her behavior.

"She told us her family had given up on her and that she knew she was probably going to lose her appeal and be executed," Shang said. "Yet all she cared about was seeing her daughter again."

With that information, the prison contacted Li's family and persuaded them to take her daughter to the final appeal hearing.

"Li's attitude changed a lot after she saw the girl in court," Shang said. "She started to talk to other inmates and even helped some of them."

Shang's methods almost produced instant results in preventing conflicts among inmates and eventually led to the center incorporating counseling into guards' everyday duties.

In 2011, the women's unit was the first to roll out a consultation system, followed by the men's section.

Huang Bin, who is in charge of psychology training at the center, said guards are being encouraged to follow in Shang's footsteps.

"We have 25 officers with the national counseling psychology certificate and we have just recruited five college graduates, who majored in psychology, as guards," he said.

Professional psychologists and academics are regularly invited to give lectures, with study groups arranged every week to help guards working toward the certificate.

The center's management guide now requires inmates to receive at least one private consultation every three days to gauge their mental state, or even daily if they are at a high risk of stress, such as when they are awaiting the results of an appeal or review by the Supreme People's Court, or are close to their time of execution.

Huang added that guards use a mental assessment that features more than 20 tests and allows them to gain a thorough understanding of an inmate's personality.

This year, Tianjin listed the psychoanalysis of death-row prisoners at the custody center as a research project that will receive financial support from the city's public security bureau, indicating that the program could be rolled out at other prisons and detention centers.

For Shang, such an expansion would show obvious progress in the city's justice system.

"Some question why we spend time counseling death-row prisoners who have committed such serious crimes and are about to die," she said. "I just believe that having peace of mind is everyone's right."