Asia-Pacific

Radical steps to transform Taiwan's jails

Prisoners doing maintenance work
Image caption The prisoners' skills are put to use as much as possible at the Changhua jail

Taiwan's prison population has soared in recent years to 67,000, blamed in part on a rising number of drug-related convictions. With the country's jails approaching breaking point, the authorities are introducing radical reforms to try to reduce the number of repeat offenders.

In many of Taiwan's prisons, efforts have been made in recent years to beautify the grounds, allow inmates to do a wide variety of tasks from cooking and baking bread to running a laundry service, and to teach inmates painting, porcelain making and performance arts.

Perhaps the best example of the type of prison Taiwan is aiming for is Changhua Prison, which houses about 2,800 young inmates convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery.

First impressions are surprising.

In the courtyard, there is a fish pond teeming with koi carp, complete with model mountains and waterfalls. The pond was built by the inmates; the koi raised by them, and nearby bonsai plants nurtured by them.

The idea is to help the prisoners learn to appreciate life and nature, and develop calmer personalities. As much as possible, the prisoners' skills are put to use.

Just after lunch inmates in the cooking crew roll large pots back to the kitchen for cleaning. Those in the maintenance crew are busy scraping old paint off the gates in preparation for repainting. In a workshop, others use welding equipment to make large lanterns for temple fairs.

No-one is wearing chains or handcuffs; the inmates are dressed in white T-shirts, blue shorts and plastic slippers. They carry out their duties with few guards present.

Step too far?

This is not just a cost-cutting exercise, such measures are designed to help rehabilitate prisoners, as part of a wider effort to transform Taiwan's 25 prisons and 24 detention centres.

Overcrowding has become a serious problem, with inmates often housed 10 to 12 to a cell, sleeping on floor mattresses, with no air conditioning.

Taiwan is opting to focus on reforming prisoners, instead of building more prisons.

Each week, prisoners take classes in drumming, traditional Chinese musical instruments, cloth puppetry or calligraphy.

"If out of 100 people, a few are changed for the better because of our efforts, that's a kind of help," said prison warden Tai Shou-nan.

"We can't say that we shouldn't try, just because 10 or 20 of the 100 people haven't changed for the better."

But some victims' families say that such lenient treatment of prisoners is going too far.

Many Taiwanese believe criminals should get their due punishment, with most of the population supporting the death penalty.

Others believe that to be truly reformed, inmates must make up for their misdeeds.

"We hope the prisons can also let prisoners know about the difficulties victims are encountering in life, so that they can reflect on what they've done," said Lin Ren-de, of the Association for Victims Support.

"Many victims have not been compensated. If the prisoners can compensate them after they get out, they should."

'Peaceful mind'

In the afternoon heat, about 15 inmates at Changhua Prison practice drumming in the yard, following an instructor from Taiwan's famous U Theatre.

Image caption The drumming students only get one lesson a week, but they learn fast

They first beat the drums slowly and eventually work into faster, more sophisticated beats.

Lessons were first introduced at the prison in 2009. The students only get one lesson a week, but they learn very fast, the teacher says. Some practise in their cells with magazines wrapped in towels, to avoid disturbing others.

"I was just doing some stupid ass things out there. Since I got here I started to play drums and that really changed me," says a 24-year-old man convicted of armed robbery, who declined to give his name.

"We get to do Tai chi, like Chinese martial arts. We get to meditate; that helps us mentally. Our minds are more clear. I just feel more peaceful in my mind.

"I think I'm going to restart my life, be a better person. I know it, I'm going to be a successful person," he says.

Two of the inmates have been hired by the theatre and performed in the capital, Taipei, earlier this year.

For Chinese New Year in February, 2,011 inmates danced for Taiwan's minister of justice and other guests, including their own families.

More than 2,000 inmates gathered outside at the same time, without chains or handcuffs, and if problems had occurred there would have been no way to control the situation, even with 100 guards present, Mr Tai said.

The event passed off peacefully.

Footage of the dance uploaded to the video-sharing website YouTube received nearly 40,000 hits in the first week. The inmates broke a world record for the largest number of prisoners dancing at the same time, Mr Tai said.

But his reward was simpler than that.

"It was the first time many of them had ever received applause from anyone, including their parents," said Mr Tai.

"Through this activity, their parents saw them in a different way. This makes them work harder. That's why I dared to organise this performance."

The prisoners now give drumming performances at other jails in Taiwan, in the hope that others will be given the chance to realise they have abilities valued by society and that they can start a new life - even in prison.

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