Why China’s Prison Officers Are Trying to Escape, Too
This February, as the coronavirus rippled outward from the central city of Wuhan, all of China was on edge. That included residents of the country’s prisons: That month, after COVID-19 outbreaks were identified at five prisons around the country, the nation’s entire prison system was put into lockdown, just like many of its cities.
But while the rest of China may have returned to normal, its prisons remain effectively in quarantine, and the lockdown orders have yet to be lifted. It’s not just the prisoners who are affected: Many correctional officers, overstretched in the best of times, are having to live on prison grounds for 60 days straight or even longer. Cut off from their families and lives, they work under extreme pressure, with no sign of relief on the horizon.
As of 2012, there were more than 300,000 correctional officers in China, making them the second most numerous class of security worker, after the police. Yet, correctional officers, like their charges, are a largely invisible group. Their work is mainly confined to prison grounds, and they are not permitted to wear their uniforms when they appear in public. On the rare occasions when the officers do become the subject of public attention in China, it is usually because of incidents such as prisoners escaping or reoffending upon release.
“My husband felt frozen during his winter shifts at the prison,” the wife of a former correctional officer once told me. “At the police station (where he had since been transferred), he has twice had to carry a dead body on his back, but it doesn’t feel as bad.” The coldness was as much figurative as literal: It mostly referred to her husband’s pent-up feelings within the prison system. In a survey of correctional officers from 2014, half of respondents said they would switch careers if they had the opportunity.
Part of the problem is a growing disconnect between the type of people who become correctional officers and the expectations of the system they serve. Today, these officers are increasingly being recruited through the civil service system, as opposed to simply following their parents into the profession, or joining up after leaving the army. To a far greater degree than their predecessors, many members of this new generation prioritize personal development, freedom, and professional autonomy.
But concerns over public safety mean China’s prisons are more closed off than they were during the days of “reform through labor,” which formally ended in 1994. With prisoners locked up at all times, the intensity and stressfulness of correctional officers’ work has risen correspondingly. Isolated from the outside world, occupational burnout has become commonplace.
Indeed, being a correctional officer in China involves a multitude of responsibilities beyond just guarding inmates. In addition to being caretakers and managers, they are also expected to assume the roles of educators, production managers in prison, and service providers. According to my research, officers in understaffed institutions routinely work more than 300 hours a month: the equivalent of 37 eight-hour work days. And understaffing is not uncommon. Official regulations call for a inmate-to-frontline officer ratio of at least 5.5-to-1. That’s already far below the U.S., which reported a 4-to-1 ratio in 2016, but at many Chinese prisons the real ratio is more than 10-to-1.
These problems have only been exacerbated by some of the new technologies and protocols instituted in recent years to optimize prison management. For example, in the past, correctional officers could take naps in between their regular patrols on night shifts — so long as they promptly responded to emergencies. However, at the end of 2018, prisons across the country began implementing an “eyes wide open” policy, which requires correctional officers to watch inmates on surveillance monitors for the entirety of their night shifts.
This policy has drawn criticism for the extreme stress it places on officers and their health. Correctional officers also chafe at the extreme surveillance they are under, as prisons have upgraded their camera systems in recent years. To a certain extent, the increase in cameras has helped to ensure that officers remain civilized and fairly enforce order, but it has also stripped them of much of their autonomy and opened them to constant surveillance by their superiors. There are even special staff tasked with monitoring officers to make sure they keep their eyes open all night.
Each correctional officer feels like they have an invisible pair of eyes watching them at all times, and they could be punished if their attention so much as wanders. Always on camera, they are careful to conduct searches by the book, but that doesn’t always mean doing them thoroughly.
One former correctional officer I interviewed had actually looked forward to his placement within the system. A graduate of the top corrections program in the country, he saw the job as a noble calling that would help him change inmates’ lives. Instead, he wound up quitting after four years, citing the boredom and long hours. Another former officer who was transferred from his prison to the local commission for discipline inspection told me that, although his new job also keeps him away from home for long periods of time, he nonetheless prefers it to the draining monotony of life in the prison.
Yet the plight of correctional officers rarely elicits public attention, let alone sympathy. An officer surnamed Yang told me: “In this line of work, doing everything perfectly is just doing your duty, and if anything goes wrong, it’s your fault.”
To alleviate some of these pressures, the country needs take into account correctional officers’ well-being when setting prison policy, and to address burnout. For example, they could be given the right to take a paid sabbatical after five consecutive years of work.
More important, however, is rethinking how the country’s prisons function. Certain aspects of correctional officers’ jobs, such as providing medical care, vocational education, and psychological guidance, should be assigned to specialized teams from outside the prison. Alternatively, prisons could divide these responsibilities into different categories and assign specializations to staff based on their backgrounds and expertise, rather than expecting them to do everything.
Just as China’s prisons remain stuck under lockdown after the rest of the country has moved on, the prison system remains locked in the past. Previously, all industries and professions were equally constricted, since everyone depended on their production unit for survival. Now, many industries are highly market-oriented and less controlling, but prisons remain closed off from the outside world, and correctional officers marginalized. It’s a complex problem, but one of the most urgent tasks is to find effective ways of improving the management and morale of the correctional officer cohort.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Correctional officers in protective suits on their rounds in Donggang, Liaoning province, Feb. 27, 2020. Cai Bing/People Visual)