Just a few months after being released from jail, a woman in central China’s Henan province sent a letter to the country’s top policymakers lobbying for improved conditions at prisons and other detention facilities. During her four years behind bars, she says, she hardly ever had access to hot showers.
“From my experience, most women’s detention facilities don’t provide hot water for showers,” Jia Lingmin wrote in her letter, mailed Monday, in which she argues for improved bathing conditions at jails, prisons, and other places of enforced supervision. “Taking years of cold showers is extremely harmful to a woman’s health and could lead to long-term medical issues,” she continued. “This places an additional burden on [the inmates], their families, and the entire social welfare system.”
A former primary school teacher, the 53-year-old Jia made a name for herself as an outspoken advocate against forced evictions to make way for construction projects. Her residential community in Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital, was bulldozed as part of the local government’s “urban village” beautification project. She was arrested in May 2014 for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a vague crime that is often invoked to silence activists — and sentenced to four years.
Jia told Sixth Tone that before her sentencing, she stayed for two years in two detention centers where she had no access to hot water: She could only put cold water outside and hope that the sun would warm it up. She served another two years at the women’s prison in Xinxiang, a nearby city. “Every day, the prison would provide each inmate with a bottle of hot water,” she recalled. “We’d drink a little and save the rest for a shower.” The bottle contained around 2 liters of water, she said, and in the winter — when temperatures could drop to just below freezing — two cellmates were given three bottles to split between them.
Many of the inmates Jia met in prison experienced irregular menstruation — a possible result of cold showers, according to traditional Chinese medicine. In medical science, too, heat is a common treatment for period pain. Jia began drafting her letter shortly after her release, and on Monday sent it to the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
Limited access to hot water at Chinese detention facilities has been a known issue for decades, to the extent that prominent public figures have spoken out about it during interviews. In 2013, Liu Xiaoqing, a well-known Chinese actress who was imprisoned for tax evasion, told media that she had cold showers every day during her detention.
Some prisons, however, have made strides to improve the quality of life of their inmates. When Shenyang, the capital of northeastern Liaoning province, invested 1 billion yuan ($147 million) to build a complex of four adjacent prisons in 2003, it vowed that every female inmate would be able to enjoy hot showers. Meanwhile in Fuzhou, the capital of eastern Fujian province, some prisons have installed solar water heaters.
But not everyone has supported improved living conditions at prisons. In 2003, a state media report sparked public debate when it called a women’s prison in Guangdong one of the most “top-notch” and “luxurious” detention facilities in China, with some inmates even describing it as “better than home.” Many questioned why public funds were being used to make criminals more comfortable, while others argued that treating convicts humanely would help rehabilitate them.
A guard working at a prison in Fujian told Sixth Tone that in decades past, only those who were elderly, ill, or disabled were allowed to take hot showers. “A prison’s living conditions correspond to living conditions nationwide,” explained the guard, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. “Only in recent years has the country’s rapid economic growth ushered in more rights and amenities for prisoners, such as heaters.”
“I don’t think getting to take a hot shower should be considered a special privilege,” he added. “Whatever they’ve done, we still have to guarantee their basic rights.”
But the guard also expressed concerns that if prisons get too comfortable, they might become too appealing to people on the bottom rung of society. “What if more people break the law just so they can spend the rest of their days in jail?” he asked. “What if desperate sick people put themselves in danger to get free medical treatment in jail? Already I’ve seen quite a lot of these cases.”
For her part, Jia doesn’t see hot showers as too much to ask. “First, people staying in detention facilities [awaiting trial] are not criminals — so they shouldn’t be punished,” she said. “And second, taking hot showers is not some kind of reward, it’s a basic human need.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Female prisoners attend an educational event in Xinxiang, Henan province, March 6, 2013. VCG)