SHANGHAI - When the lights came on, performers of the Xinsheng Art Troupe stepped forward on the stage and took a bow.
Amid the extended applause, the curtain call seemed like any deserved end to a well-delivered musical in the theatre.
But this was a performance in Qingpu Prison, the largest correctional facility in Shanghai and one of three holding convicted felons. Qingpu also contains more than 100 foreign prisoners from 38 countries.
On stage, the actors, chorus members, conductor and his orchestra were mostly inmates of Qingpu. The 45 prisoners of the troupe, among which nearly half are foreigners, have been sentenced to a total prison term of more than 600 years.
But that has not stopped them from performing in the musical more than 60 times since they made their debut in early 2013.
"The prisoners have really devoted themselves to rehearsing and performing the musical, working closely with the officers and volunteers," said Li Bin, a section chief at Qingpu Prison who is also a coordinator of the performance.
"To overcome the language barrier, the foreign prisoners learned Chinese while officers learned English. It was a dual language environment," Li said.
The composer and conductor of the 90-minute performance is a Chinese New Zealander who graduated from China's top music academy but was imprisoned for illegal business operations. The drummer of the orchestra is from the United Kingdom. There are also a number of inmates from Africa in the chorus.
The musical, titled The Inner Prison, tells the story of a young prisoner finding his remorse and redemption with the help of a prison guard. Local newspaper Jiefang Daily reported that on the day of the premiere, the theatre was filled with crying from both the performers and their families in the audience, as the plot is based on the true experiences of many among the 2,000 inmates at Qingpu Prison, as well as those in other 11 prisons across Shanghai.
The Xinsheng Art Troupe's performance in Qingpu Prison is just one example of correctional facilities across the country, which is finding more and better ways to reform and rehabilitate inmates in improving prison environments.
Zhang Yong was given a life sentence in 2009 for intentional injury that resulted in the death of another young man. Now studying in the prison library every day, the 26-year-old, who had completed only junior high school, has set his goal on obtaining a college degree.
"I'm thinking of studying economics, for this may help me find a better job when I'm out," said Zhang, who still faces at least 20 years in prison as part of his reduced sentence.
Zhang was among 730 prisoners in Shanghai who had decided to use their time behind bars to seek higher education. To meet their demand, Shanghai's prison system was the first in the country to introduce distance education in June 2012 in cooperation with Shanghai Open University.
"Prisons in Shanghai put education, reform and redemption of people as the priority," said Lin Peng, a senior official with the Shanghai Municipal Prison Management Bureau.
He said Shanghai has renovated several prisons over the past decade to deal with prisoners with different heath conditions and prepare those who are about to be released for their return to society.