Progress made in protecting inmates' rights

Updated: 2011-12-01 14:13

By Yan Weijue (

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When Gao Xiaosong, a renowned musician in China, was released from a detention house on Nov 8 after serving 184 days for a drunken crash that caused a four-vehicle pile-up, he appeared to be in good spirits: his cheek still chubby and his shoulder-length hairstyle no different from the way he has kept it over a dozen years.

Some cheered at his return, while a fair number of others started to question his appearance, which may have been the result of special privileges for a celebrity in jail, or in Gao's words, a detention house, a term he has insisted on using.

"Why didn't he get a prison haircut?" an Internet blogger wrote on Weibo, a sentiment echoed by many others who believe a haircut is one of the many unwritten rules for convicts.

"Actually that is explainable, as Chinese law doesn't stipulate inmates should get their hair cut and their beard shaved," says Hong Daode, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, in a telephone interview with the China Daily website on Wednesday. "What's more, he is a convicted prisoner with a penalty term of less than one year. Based on law, he served his term in a detention house rather than a prison. The detention house usually has less restriction on inmates."

Many detention houses and jails give inmates a haircut because of hygiene concerns as well as convenience in management, said Hong, who also deemed the tradition is in decline in China as authorities have realized the importance of keeping inmates in custody in a dignified and humane manner.

Inmate rights protection strides

China has made improvement in protecting the rights of prison inmates in recent years, including elimination of bans on homosexuality and promotion of the death penalty by injection, according to a judicial official in charge of penal human rights studies.

"A prison is supposed to possess a grave air. But it will be useless if it neglects inmates' indignity and human rights," said Feng Jiancang, head of the Human Rights office of the Ministry of Justice's Institute for Crime Prevention, at a forum on human rights in Beijing on Sept 22.

The ministry has rewritten the national code of conduct for prison inmates, eliminating ban on homosexuality and other lifestyles and practices that were previously not allowed in prisons, according to Feng.

Inmates will not be forced to squat with both hands crossed behind their heads, a practice that is commonly used to demoralize inmates who are entering prison for the first time. In addition, female inmates are allowed to keep their hair dyed, which, according to Feng, is "a minor detail (of revision) but with a great significance to respect for human rights."

As for death row inmates, they are granted more clemencies, says professor Hong, as they are allowed to see their families before execution, and can choose their way of execution, lethal injection or shooting.

"It's foreseeable that a nationwide transformation of death penalty from shooting to lethal injection is happening," Hong says. "Because the latter is conducive to keeping the criminal's dignity and causes them less pain."

Lethal injection was made legal in China in 1997 and was first carried out by Kunming city in Yunnan province the same year, followed by Wuhan, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou, and Beijing, as well as other cities.