A foreigner's life in a Beijing jail

A foreign man who spent the last seven months in jail sent Danwei this description of his daily life at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center after his release last week.

If I were a Chinese person and not a foreigner, a crime like mine would have been dealt with on the “city district” level, as opposed to the “municipal” level which is much tougher.

The other people incarcerated at Beijing No. 1 Detention Center were all facing life sentences or death sentences, at least as a possibility, so it’s not a place where detainees are given a lot of slack. It’s the site of Beijing’s newly constructed hi‐tech lethal injection chamber.

It was boring as anything, and the rules were strict.

Thankfully, foreigners are housed in a section where we were mixed with big‐time white collar Chinese criminals, who are a better sort than the murderers and cannibals and rapists housed in other parts of the facility. Many of the Chinese people I was in close contact with were college educated, and many had been in positions of high responsibility. The CFO of Gome was in my cell; Huang Guangyu the CEO – formerly the richest man in China – was down the hall. I often saw him walking in the hallway heading downstairs for investigation.

The room, or “cell” if you like, was about 25 feet x 15 feet in dimension, and housed between 12 and 14 detainees. About half the room was filled with what we called “the board”, a raised platform stretching from wall to wall on which we sat during the day and slept at night. The bathroom in the cell consisted of a squat toilet, a faucet (no sink), and another faucet up high for showers at night. The wall between the bathroom and the room was transparent, so everybody could see everybody else all the time doing their business. You get used to it. Boiled drinking water was available twice a day in the room through a special tap.

Daily life was a drag during the week. Here’s the schedule:

06:30 Wake up. Eat breakfast (watered‐down milk powder, a piece of bread, an egg every two days).

07:00 Clean the room. I was assigned to the bathroom from Day 1, and even though I had many chances to “move up” to the floor or other assignments, I decided to stick with what had become familiar. Two of us were responsible for the bathroom, so I cleaned it every other day, thrice a day. I stayed on that duty for so long that I became know as the “boss of the bathroom”, or “Toilet Control Officer”. (Something for my resume… and yes, I scrubbed the squat toilet with a toothbrush, but not mine.)

07:30 Sit on “the board”. This is the main activity in any Chinese jail, familiar to fans of Chinese soap operas and movies. The board runs the length of the room, and we were required to sit on the edge of it for most of the day.

Leaning too far forward, leaning too far back, and even crossing your legs was forbidden (especially if the officer on duty was an asshole or having a bad day). One person at a time was allowed to get up and move around to use the bathroom, fetch water, get a book, etc. So, mostly I chatted with other people or read a book. Sitting so much hurt my back at first, but then I got used to it, or stronger.

10:30 Time for lunch! For the last three months of my incarceration it was boiled potatoes every day. A single boiled vegetable was the template for most all meals, with beef chunks included once a month. Every meal also included steamed bread, which I generally avoided, and rice came with lunch every two days. After lunch we had about an hour of free time to lie around.

12:00 Siesta time, a Chinese tradition.

13:30 Wake up from naptime. Sit on the board for another three hours. Also, during the afternoon sitting period we were let out into our “porch” area for about 15 minutes, where we stored our extra food and clothing. This was known as “going out” for “exercise”, but in reality it was just another small room with a big hole up high for a window with no glass… that is, you could see the sky and sometimes the sun, but I wouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination call it going outside. Also, the exercise was walking around in a circle with too many people in a small space, at probably about 2 or 3 mph.

16:30 Dinner time! Mmmmm…. oily boiled cabbage. Or oily boiled turnips.

Mondays and Fridays we got to have a kind of tomato soup with egg in it, a very popular meal, but we only got a small bowlful. I generally skipped dinner as part of my weight loss plan, and as soon as things were cleaned up I got down to my work out. After dinner we had 2 hours of free time for showering (which I also used to exercise). This generally involved about 75 pushups (not all at once), some crunches, 1000 jumping jacks, some bicep and shoulder lifting, and some squats to keep my legs from atrophying. I did this about 5 times per week. For weightlifting we used a pair of pants filled with water bottles. It was very prison‐y.

19:00 Time to watch the official state news broadcast, Xinwen Lianbo, which was much worse even compared to the official state news agency that I used to work for. “Worse” meaning that the top 9 stories were usually about what the top 9 leaders in the central government did that day, followed by 2 minutes of international news. As for other sources of news, we got about 3 or 4 random sheets from the China Daily newspaper (in English) every week. I found out that Michael Jackson died from an article that began, “Since the death of pop icon Michael Jackson last Thursday…” I was like, are they talking about the real Michael Jackson?

After the news, we were forced to sit and watch 2 more hours of the most incredibly mindless Chinese TV you could ever imagine. Usually the station was set on CCTV‐3, which is mostly family variety shows, cross‐talk comedians that I can’t follow at all, lip‐synched Mando‐pop concerts, and nationalist sing‐alongs. Uggggh.

21:30 We can finally move around again! Time to brush your teeth, get ready for bed, stretch, etc.

22:00 Time for bed. I was going to say, “lights out”, but then I remembered that they never, ever, ever, never shut off the lights in the detention center. Ever. Super‐bright exposed fluorescent curly bulbs 24 hours a day, so I ended up sleeping with a blindfold on. I made it from a t‐shirt sleeve. One of the special things about life in the detention center was that two people in each room have to be “on duty” during any time when people are sleeping, including during the afternoon nap. The night was divided into four shifts of 2 hours each, while the last shift was an additional 30 minutes. We rotated through the last three duties and then had a night off after three nights of duty. So, on Monday I might sleep from 10pm to 4am followed by duty until 6:30am; the next night I’d sleep from 10 to 2, do duty until 4, and then sleep till 6:30; on Wednesday I’d sleep from 10 to midnight, do duty until 2am, and then sleep until 6:30; Thursday night I would not have to do duty, but I sometimes would have to do duty during the afternoon nap. It was a very tough system to get used to at first.

Finally, there was no torture, no rape in the shower. Just the good ol’ psychological torture of close confinement and isolation from everyone and everything I ever had known one millisecond before I was taken into custody. But I was always glad that at least there were a bunch of us in one room. Being alone would have been much worse.

Edited 2009.10.30. --JM

There are currently 22 Comments for A foreigner's life in a Beijing jail.

Comments on A foreigner's life in a Beijing jail

yeah, what was the dude in jail for?

So what exactly was his crime?

Woah. What crime did he do to deserve the time?

"the English‐language official state news broadcast that I used to work for" gives a little clue to who he is.

Right, what did he do, and (this is the more unusual question for me) what what was the situation that resulted in a seven-month jail term but he wasn't just deported?

We should follow the US jail system, which makes
people more afraid of going to jail than death penalty.

interesting reading. (to above comment) i hope not

obviously the storyteller won't tell why he was in for. so my questions are:

1 how's Mr. Huang holding up?
2 what are you in for, mr?

At least Chinese jails are safe, unlike US ones.

So you consider being inside a prison which contains people who are to be given a death sentence "safe"? It's moronic comments like that that give morons a bad name. I guess it was the oversafeness of Chinas prisons which was responsible for the 10 year delay in the UN rapporteur on tortures visit to the motherland...

Chinese jails aren't safe, what makes you think that? He specifically mentioned that he was in a segregated jail for foreigners and high $$$ Chinese.

Had he been in a Chinese jail, he might have been playing a game of elude the cat.

Technically the guy was not in "jail" jail. He was in a detention center used to lock up suspects who cannot be released on bail before they are finally convicted. Convicts who have landed less than one year's jail time will also be kept there.

The big difference? Once you are in "jail" jail, you will be required to work in the prison factory rather than sit there idly every day and chat with your inmates. You think the government will pay to let you sit in the prison and do nothing?

I was once told by a criminal law professor in China that if you one day landed in a detention center and your cell mates asked what you did to get you there, always say you killed some one. They would then leave you alone because they know you would not mind killing another one if you ever got into a fight with them. Or else, wait to get the crap beaten out of you. Be careful before you say this though because some detention centers lock real death row inmates separately.

First of all, for the last comment about saying you killed someone, I would say that is terrific and horribly bad advice. Can you imagine the implications of uttering that statement in a prison and then not having any rights to protect your statements? Idiotic.

The other thing I would like to mention is, according to our correspondent, there are "cannibals" at this prison. That's quite interesting.

Or was this tongue-in-cheek?

This individual is a friend of mine, and on his behalf (and unasked for) I'm going to answer a few of these comments and respond to some posters directly.

To those who want to know what he was "in" for - don't bother asking. Suffice it to say it was a non-violent, non-political, victimless crime. Did he "deserve" it? In my opinion, no.

@drum - Do our friend a favor and let's not draw too much attention to the author's identity. Point is, he's free and it's time for him to try to put this behind him - let's try to let him do that.

@Chingis, you need to stop talking, because you're stupid. Example: "It's moronic comments like that that give morons a bad name." What exactly are you trying to say there? This isn't a discussion about execution, it's a discussion about one foreigner's life in a Beijing jail.

@ everyone else - let this serve as a warning. The days in which foreigners were simply deported without charges are over; China is cracking down on laowai and they're not afraid to make good on the threat of jail time. Stay out of trouble and play nicely, children.

Oh, and @ the author - hope you established some serious guanxi during your time with China's white collar criminals!

Interesting comment their laowai. As it happens the individual in question is also an aquaintance of mine. Non-violent, no-political, I will agree with those, however "victimless crime" is a matter of opinion. In most (all) countries, it is not considered a victimless crime, and that is why most countries deem it to be a crime. Perhaps in the country of your origin there is a "victimless crime" defence, but I can assure you that in the person in questions country there is no such defence, and nor in China.
In reference to your particular remark directed at myself, I was clearly refereeing to the previous posters comment claiming that Chinese jails are safe. I had assumed that the majority of Danwei readers could figure this out. I will decide for myself what I want to talk about, and when to shut up. How about you do likewise?

I'll shut up now

@Barley Oats: Yes, there are cannibals in Beijing #1 Detention Center... at least according to the long-term detainees who often chatted with the guards. There was even one couple supposedly incarcerated. He was over on death row, and she was being held in the women's section as an accomplice. Apparently he "forced her" to cut up the bodies he would bring home.

@ barley of coz I was not suggesting that one should confess. Suppose you are in the detention for committing fraud. I do not think claiming you killed someone would do you any harm in the court. It is for your safety in the detention center. .

Just what exactly did the guy do? Possession of drugs? Selling porn? These are victimless crimes I can think of that are nevertheless punishable in china.

Gotta love the above comment of 'jail' jail.

You know there's actually a proper English word for it. It's called 'prison'.

And in Chinese, the distinction is obvious too.

Jail - 看守所 for suspects.
Prison - 监狱 for convicts.

That's apparently only a distinction that exists in American English, John D. For many English speakers, "jail" and "prison" are synonymous, so I'd understand how readers may have been confused by this post - except that the intro makes in clear that the author was in a "detention center" and not a "'jail' jail."

This prison in Beijing sounds humane and appropriate for housing criminals. Unlike those in the West which are holiday camps where criminals love to go back.
I think the West shoud learn from China and adopt the right way to accommodate offenders. I live in London where crimes are getting out of hand. One of the solutions is to adopt the methods used in China. Indeed, we have a lot to learn from China!

Elaborating on the above comment, the equivalent detention centers in the US are equipped with cable TV, computers, actual beds, lights that go off, etc.

Detention center for white-collar criminals = extended relaxation period?

I like what I hear about this toilet-cleaning business and constant observation.

@laowai: Your friend seems to be dropping lots of hints for someone trying to put this behind him. For example, I read his blog. What's with his latest post!!! (Especially since it came *after* this Danwei post was edited.)

My advice is: If you're trying to keep a low profile, then you should be careful about letting information get out.

Very interesting article... the style and above all the content of this factual narrative reminds me strongly of the book Prisoner of Mao by Bao Ruo-Wang aka Jean Pasqualini even if the book is rather old today and of course infinitely more elaborated (a book rated 5 stars on Amazon; everyone interested in China should really have read it; you should just read first the few interesting comments attached to this book on Amazon; as one reader put it "one of the best books ever on China" and I do fully agree; I often just happen to think of that book ...a bit like "The road" but that's another story). It seems here that this (almost) unknown foreigner here has spent some time in almost the same (?) Beijing prison as Pasqualini 50 years earlier and that things didn't really change much in terms of schedules and organization...
Besides as a foreigner I think you're probably much better off nowadays for a short while in a top-of-the-range jail in the PRC (let's say more precisely in Beijing, Shanghai or HK) with a bunch of local first-class white-collar-crooks than in any other Asian prisons apart Japan (personally spent a few nights here and there at police stations across the PRC, let's say in areas where foreigners where not always welcome -was never too painful, except sometimes the long lectures about the Chinese so-called "rule of law" by pervert or idiotic local police-sub-chiefs waiting for the cash of the usual 'super-big fine'; but the worse, concerning let's say "China", was in fact once, one whole night in Taipei in a true large jail cell alone with a bunch of other illegal immigrants -other fellow wetbacks, but who seemed to me rather sinister, well very poor probably, dark men of unidentified origins -couldn't even communicate; looked to me like a gang of Conrad's cannibal Dyaks-; so I didn't really sleep too well that night, head on my lizard briefcase, in my tailor-made Gekko-like dark pashmina suit !:)...

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