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Inmates Turn Cells Into Classrooms

Among the millions of people who will take the nation’s next round of college equivalency tests in April, there is a small group of people for whom the test has special significance.

The people in this group, all of them men, will be sporting identical clothing and haircuts on the day of the test, and they will all take the test at desks located behind the high walls of the Beijing No 2 Prison.

According to Niu Guoqing, chief of the prison’s educational department, nearly 300 inmates are now busy preparing for the twice-yearly test.

“We have seen a steady increase in the number of inmates taking the tests in recent years and this year’s figure sets a new record,” Niu revealed with pride.

Niu, also vice-director of the prison’s Xinlu Training School, has every reason to be proud. Since 1993, when inmates started sitting for the national test, nearly 650 of Beijing No 2 Prison’s inmates have taken it and more than 1,040 certificates have been awarded. Twenty inmates have passed all the necessary tests to graduate from junior college.

But the road to success for these unique students is not an easy one. “I’ve spent my two hours of leisure time every day and entire weekends preparing for the test,” said one inmate, surnamed Zhang. “With other inmates playing cards, chatting or watching TV nearby, it’s really a test of will.”

Zhang, sentenced to life imprisonment for robbery, has already passed eight courses in law. Law courses are a hit with residents of the Beijing prison, with some 45 percent of the test-takers concentrating on legal subjects.

It seems ironic that law-breakers would be so interested in studying the subject. But on closer inspection it makes sense.

“I started out wanting to find out what law I had broken,” an inmate surnamed Wang explained. “After all these years, I have broadened my scope and improved my analytical ability.”

But knowledge is not the only reward. Inmates who succeed with the tests also win respect from their fellow inmates.

“Other inmates often come to me to ask my opinion on legal disputes related to their relatives and friends,” Zhang said.

The prisoner’s right to learn behind bars is provided for by China’s Prison Law and by the Education Law. Courses usually offered to the inmates include ethics, basic legal knowledge and Chinese. Inmates are also taught skills which may help them embark on a new life after getting out of prison.

According to Bi Heping, who is responsible for the education of inmates in the Beijing No 2 Prison, the prison has 15 full-time teachers. Well-educated inmates with teaching experience are also invited to teach their fellow inmates.

The prison has even invited university teachers to tutor test candidates. Since late 1997, inmates who passed the tests have been eligible to earn additional credits which could lead to reductions in their sentences. This has provided inmates with an extra incentive they might not have otherwise.

“The equivalency tests meet the inmates’ desire to improve themselves,” Bi explained. “Many have regained hope and confidence in the process.”

(China Daily 04/02/2001)

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