Guangdong province's prison service has opened a public WeChat account for relatives of inmates in the first initiative of its kind on the Chinese mainland.
Family members can use the "Guangdong Prison" account to obtain information about inmates by chatting with staff members.
"Family members of inmates in Guangdong can immediately know what the inmates are doing in the prisons via the country's most popular instant messaging tool," a statement issued by the Guangdong Prison Administrative Bureau said.
The account has attracted more than 1,000 users who have left over 170 messages and comments since the start of trial operations aweek ago.
Prison officers and administrative personnel answered all the questions put by family members over the WeChat platform instantly, the statement said.
In addition to obtaining information about the lives of their relatives in prison and the work they are doing, the family members can check on whether they are healthy and learn about any changes to their prison terms. Users can even ask how much pocket money a relative has.
One family member, who did not wish to be named, said the WeChat account provides an easy and convenient communication channel.
"Now we do not have to write or phone the prisons regularly to know what inmates are doing," he told local media. Wang Peiwen, director of Gaoming Prison in Foshan, said the WeChat account is a part of the bureau's efforts to make its operations transparent. Other measures include blogs and open days.
"Family members can also learn when they will be allowed to visit inmates and what they can bring with them via the WeChat platform," Wang told local media. Last year, Guangdong's provincial government invested more than 20 million yuan (S$4.3 million) to help make the prison system more transparent, according to the statement.
The bureau is taking steps to strengthen supervision. Every prison in the province has recruited a Party representative, a deputy to the local People's Congress and a member of the local Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to act as supervisors. They oversee operations, handle complaints from inmates and answer their questions. Their names, photos, addresses and phone numbers are displayed conspicuously in the prisons.
Peng Peng, a senior researcher at the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, said the launch of the WeChat account is an example of the way that Internet technology is being used to improve the way prisons are run.
"It will help to protect the human rights and other legal rights and interests of the inmates," Peng said.