Former convicts coming in from the cold

Updated: 2016-04-14 08:18

By Cao Yin(China Daily)

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Former convicts coming in from the cold

A raft of new measures outlined in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) will provide greater assistance to organizations dedicated to helping ex-prisoners rejoin society, as Cao Yin reports.

On March 24, less than four years after he was released from prison, Zheng Hongjun opened his own fruit store, thanks to the assistance provided by a socially aware businessman, government departments and members of the public.

Zheng, 47, used to own a fish store in eastern China's Anhui province, but in 2010 he was sentenced to two years in prison after he assaulted a supplier who had reneged on a business deal.

During Zheng's time in prison, his wife became ill and died, and when he was released in 2012, he discovered he was unemployable. His life fell apart.

"The experience drove a wedge between my daughter and me; she never thought I would offend, let alone serve a prison sentence," he said.

Zheng returned to his hometown, Jiamusi in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, and began looking for work, but the first six months after his release saw his hopes dashed repeatedly, leaving him frustrated and angry.

"I found several jobs, but my employers always fired me when they found out about my 'bad record'," he said.

Last year, when he was at his lowest ebb, Zheng met Ying Zhanwei, head of China Ex-Convict Aid, in Langfang, Hebei province.

Ying and a number of other entrepreneurs in Langfang run regular businesses, but most of the profits are used to fund socially beneficial activities, such as an employment information platform that contains details of ex-offenders looking for work and homes.

As a result of his interaction with China Ex-Convict Aid, Zheng's life began to get back on track. He is now a volunteer for the organization and helps former convicts to re-establish their lives.

According to statistics supp-lied by the Ministry of Justice, 400,000 to 600,000 inmates are released from China's prisons every year. Thanks to the efforts of organization such as China Ex-Convict Aid, more than 90 percent of them have settled down and found jobs in recent years.

'The golden period'

Criminologists and psychology experts believe that the first six months after release are the "golden period" for ex-convicts. It's the time that determines the success or failure of their rehabilitation, and the best way to stop them reoffending is to provide training that will give them the skills they will need to find work.

He Junjian, president of Chang'an, a magazine that reports on China's legal system, said the path of reintegration should be made as smooth as possible for ex-prisoners to allow them to settle down quickly after their release. However, that will require greater understanding and assistance from society as a whole.

China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), released by the central government earlier this year, highlights the need for more assistance for recently released prisoners.

Wang Jie, founder of China Ex-Convict Aid, which has helped more than 4,000 ex-inmates since it was established in Shanxi province in 2007, said the measures outlined in the plan are good news because they will help former prisoners to ensure that their rights are protected by law.

Zheng never imagined that his impulsive act would result in a jail term, and he was devastated by the bitter experiences he endured after his release. He remembers the date he left prison, Dec 20, 2012, and how grateful he was for the gift of 200 yuan ($31) provided by a friendly warder.

"I was jobless. My wife was dead. I had nothing," he said. "To comfort my elderly parents, I returned to my hometown to spend the 2013 Spring Festival with them."

Repeated setbacks in his search for permanent employment sent his self-esteem into a downward spiral. "I was employed as a cook in a local restaurant and as a worker on construction teams, but my employers asked me leave when they learned about my criminal record. They were worried that I would fight with the other workers," he said.

His daughter was also distrustful. "She kept away from me because of my offense, and we rarely communicated. I had no money or time to give her, and I was unable to look after her. I didn't know how to play the role of a father," he said.

Touch and go

Despite severe depression, Zheng managed to endure the first six months without incident, but it was touch and go: "I even wondered about whether I should offend again, because at least that would have allowed me to settle down (in prison)."

Disappointed, he left Jiamusi, and spent a year wandering from place to place. "My unstable life ended in late 2015, when I met Ying," he said.

Ying used to lead construction teams in Hebei province, but when the work dried up he offered his services to the provincial branch of China Ex-Convict Aid.

"I like helping other people, and Zheng was the first person my branch helped. At first, I asked him to do odd jobs, hoping that I would get to know him that way. At the same time, I posted his information online and contacted a couple of local companies that were willing to provide financial aid or job opportunities," he said.

"In fact, we are a 'bridge' between kind-hearted people and ex-offenders. We aim to help them grasp opportunities to regain society's trust," Ying said.

Fortunately for Zheng, Ying was quickly able to help him raise 50,000 yuan as a startup fund for the fruit store. "Business is good. I'll send the startup money back to the people who provided it as soon as I can," Zheng said.

His new-found stability also resulted in improved relations with his daughter, who is now 24 and pregnant.

"She sends me photos and videos on WeChat (a popular instant-messaging platform). The fruit store has improved my life and provided a new connection with my daughter. It's helped me to rediscover the feeling of being a dad," he said. "What's more, I also have a girlfriend, so this feels like home."

A long struggle

Like Zheng, Ni Zhijie, struggled for a long time following her release from jail in 2011. The 59-year-old Jilin province native ran a liquor store for many years, but in 2007, she was sentenced to six years in jail for providing fake receipts.

Ni's absence left her family in financial difficulty, and the problem was exacerbated when her husband injured his leg and was laid off work.

"I didn't know who I could ask for help until my neighbors told me to turn to our community. I agreed to do some sewing work in the community, which I later discovered has a duty to help people like me to settle down," she said.

"I had to teach myself about the policies related to ex-convicts, because initially the community committee and local government didn't contact me," she added. "The government officials treated me very well after they heard about my experience, but why didn't they volunteer to provide me with aid before that?"

The current rules require local justice bureaus to follow ex-inmates after they are released from prison, but experts question the validity of the approach. "It just takes them to the places the former convicts have registered as their residences," said Wang, the China Ex-Convict Aid founder, who added that the help on offer at present is far from adequate.

The employment prospects and family situations of former inmates are vitally important in determining whether they will offend again. "That is why I founded my organization and provided homeless ex-inmates with a temporary base in Shanxi to help them settle down quickly after their release," Wang said.

"Many ex-inmates have little education and are mentally fragile. They crave contact, but are sensitive about meeting people who might mention their bad record or distrust them," he said.

"At the base, we provide encouragement and help them find themselves. We also post their information on our website to find them jobs."

Low levels of education means that most of the ex-inmates who have found employment through Wang's platform work in unskilled jobs, such as warehouse packers or security guards.

Although buoyed by the platform's success, Wang called for greater public involvement in the provision of jobs and homes for ex-offenders. He suggested the central government should use the new five-year plan to introduce special measures and assistance to bolster legal protection of the rights of ex-convicts.

"Legal measures will put the government's 'follow-up' plan into practice and attract the attention of a larger number of people".

Psychological aid

Ni, the former inmate, said psychological counseling was the thing she desired most after her release: "I didn't know how efficiently I could reintegrate into society, but I couldn't complain to my poor family. If I could have found someone to pay attention to my suffering and bitter life, I think my deep anxiety would have been better alleviated," she said.

In January, Wu Aiying, the minister of justice, highlighted the importance of psychological aid designed to help former inmates re-enter society. She also advocated more work-related training, saying that justice bureaus at all levels should provide psychological counseling and innovative measures in community centers to improve the quality of their work.

Li Meijin, a professor of criminal psychology at the People's Public Security University of China, suggested that communities, especially those in rural areas, should provide both legal and psychological services to ex-convicts under their jurisdiction.

"The last month in prison and the first year after release are important for helping former inmates to return to society, and to reduce the rate of reoffending," Li said.

She urged prisons and communities to provide classes to teach inmates the skills that will help them when they are released and introduce them to the policies relating to ex-prisoners.

The classes should make it clear to former inmates that they must be realistic and accept that their previous mistakes will make it difficult for them to find jobs. However, while ex-convicts should not be overambitious, continuous encouragement is key to successful psychological assistance, she added.

Zheng hopes that his fruit store and new-found love signal the end of a disastrous chapter in his life. He is determined to learn from his mistakes, and is committed to helping other ex-inmates reintegrate.

"Although returning to society was harder than I expected, and I was struggling to decide which way to go, I'm still grateful for my life, and I would like to help more people who have suffered experiences similar to mine," he said.

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What they say

After losing their freedom for a long time, released prisoners often don't know what to do or which path to choose. That's the time when they are in greatest need of help. If they cannot find a job and have no source of income, it's easier for them to offend again.

Former convicts coming in from the cold

Wang Ping, criminal law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law

When I was released, I wanted care and understanding from other people, just a sense of belonging. Besides, I desperately needed something to do. I would still like to fulfill my dreams and contribute to society. The support from all walks of life warmed my heart and made me feel confident.

Yang Hongjun, from Jishan county in Shanxi province, who obtained assistance from the county justice bureau when he was released from prison

Former convicts coming in from the cold

In addition to drawing a salary, ex-convicts in Shanghai can be subsidized by their employers. However, some are not satisfied with laboring jobs because they believe the work is poorly paid. But I think ex-inmates should know themselves and their work capabilities, and we should also call on more entrepreneurs to provide them with skills and job opportunities, while also helping them to settle down and avoid discrimination.

National search platform aids reintegration

At the end of last year, Beijing's prison, police, correction and justice officers began using a national online system to supervise former inmates, according to the Beijing Justice Bureau.

A statement issued by the bureau said the system, which came into use in December, was set up to provide an accurate and efficient platform to search for information related to ex-prisoners.

The bureau declined to disclose details of how the system works or the type of information it can provide, but said it will ensure that every former convict will be able to find a place to live, acclimatize to life outside prison and receive training that will boost their chances of finding work.

"Our main job is to provide ex-prisoners with a good link between jails and communities. As part of the improvement in our services, we occasionally cooperate with other departments to help ex-inmates with basic tasks, such as finding a job or visiting a doctor," the statement said.

Every six months, the bureau, assisted by the capital's human resources department, conducts a survey of employment prospects for ex-convicts in an attempt to understand the difficulties they face and the type of work on offer, it said.

To encourage former prisoners to start their own businesses, the bureau provides free training sessions to help them obtain technical skills and understand employment policies.

"If an ex-prisoner is elderly, disabled or has a serious illness, we contact their community committees or local government before they are released. That means their relatives can be contacted and asked to look after them to ensure that they can receive the appropriate medical care," the statement said.