In front of a three-storey building, four or five women check and unload boxes of instant noodles, biscuits and soft drinks from a truck.
Their hair, cut short to the ear, is clean and shines in the sun. They work briskly, giggling now and then, their voices firm and assured.
They look like women anywhere, happy with their shopping, except that they are wearing blue and white striped uniforms that are dished out in prison.
They are inmates at Beijing Women's Prison in a southern suburb of the capital. A truck arrives once every month, loaded with snacks and everyday items that the prisoners have ordered.
Although Tian Fengqing, chief warden in charge of the third ward of the prison, doesn't join in their excitement, she is considered by the inmates that she supervises as the one who has made their life in prison easier.
In fact, during the three years Tian has been in charge, there have been no cases of violence reported in her section, even though more than 60 per cent of the 128 inmates in Tian's division were convicted of homicide. The rest were convicted of drug trafficking, assault, robbery and embezzlement, Tian said.
Tian, 41, has been noted for her devotion to her job.
She said physical punishment, such as solitary confinement, is the last measure prison wardens resort to.
"First of all, we've got to treat them as equal human beings and convince them there is hope," she said.
"I took this job because she (Tian) trusts me," said a 44-year-old prisoner named Mao, has been given the task of keeping a record of the purchases made by the prisoners. "At first, I did it because the job earns me credits. But now I do it because she trusts me."
Mao is serving life imprisonment for embezzlement.
The prison uses a credit system to reward or punish prisoners for their performance in such areas as labor, study and abiding by prison rules.
The credits they accumulate reduce the length of their sentences. The system has proved effective in the management of prisoners.
However, Tian said it's also important to look after their psychological needs in order to help them reform.
Most of the prisoners in her division, between 19 and 60 years of age, are serving relatively long terms for serious crimes. Tian said that the inmates are more susceptible to feelings of hopelessness. Some of them have wanted to commit suicide, while others were just passively waiting for the end of their terms.
Tian said love from family members is always the strongest element motivating prisoners to live positive lives.
The prison had a phone installed in March 2000, allowing the inmates to phone home three or four times a month.
A supplement to the once-a-month visits by family members, the phone has worked effectively in keeping prisoners in good spirits, Tian said.
"I cannot describe it in words. I had such mixed feelings hearing the voice of my 80-year-old mother over the phone for the first time," said a 45-year-old prisoner named Liu, her eyes filling with tears. She had been sentenced to 13 years for embezzlement. Her term has been cut to 11 years for good behavior.
Tian calls the prisoners who tried to commit suicide "cowards," and reminds them that they are still needed by their families as mothers, wives and daughters.
However, Tian said it upsets her that the families of a few of her prisoners have chosen to abandon their "black sheep."
She writes letters to them and has managed to persuade some to start visiting the jail or to write letters.
"In my eyes, nobody is hopeless as long as they are alive," she said. A prisoner named Liu is in her 50s and cannot read or write. When required to write down the prison rules from memory, she has to draw pictures. For example, two fists with a cross over them means "no fighting."
Tian suggested she learn one Chinese character a day, telling her that by the time she is released, she will know enough words to write Tian letters.
Liu is doing just this, and the small suggestion seems to bring her hope and joy each day.
As well as providing encouragement and hope, Tian said it's helpful to seek out the root causes of the prisoners' crimes in order to help them start life anew and become law-abiding citizens.
(21dnn.com March 15, 2002)