Families refused permission to view videos of inmates' last moments
A series of deaths of inmates at Ganzhou Prison is to be investigated by Jiangxi province's Department of Justice.
"We are attaching great importance to the incidents, and have set up a special force to investigate them," the department said in a statement issued on Monday.
The results of the investigation will be released to the public "in a timely manner", the statement added.
Eight convicts have "died abnormally" at the prison, including three who died between July and December, according to a report by The Paper.cn.
Five died from sudden illnesses, one was killed by other inmates, one died when he jumped off a building and the eighth died from unknown causes.
The Paper.cn report said at least six of the deaths happened after guards neglected their duty.
Relatives of the inmates asked for autopsies to be carried out and said they wanted to view surveillance video footage, but their requests were turned down by the prison.
On Jan 8, more than 20 relatives visited the prison, the city government and the prosecuting department to deliver petitions and urge the authorities to "conduct immediate investigations into the deaths and provide justice".
Zhong Xiaojuan, one of the petitioners, said her 36-year-old brother, Zhong Xuhui, died unexpectedly in the prison in December.
"When he arrived at the prison he was in good physical condition, and after just one month I was informed he had died of a sudden heart attack," she said. "I couldn't believe what I was told and asked the prison to play me the surveillance videos, but they refused."
Wang Sijun, the son of a 52-year-old inmate who died suddenly, regards the death as suspicious. His father, Wang Qingshou, was convicted of robbery and sentenced to three years by a court in Ganzhou in October 2013.
Just 12 days after beginning his sentence, he was sent to a hospital and diagnosed as having a cerebral hemorrhage. He died 20 days later.
"My father was seldom ill, and his blood pressure was normal," said Wang. "I went to the prison many times to check the surveillance videos, but haven't met a single officer who is willing to help us."
Ye Xinsheng, a senior official at the prison said, "We will meet the reasonable requirements of those family members, including watching the surveillance videos, but hope they won't take extreme actions."
Ganzhou prosecutors said they will study the results of the investigation, and "if any police officers are suspected of misconduct, they will be held accountable".
Liu Renwen, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said guards in many prisons force inmates to carry out dangerous work, in same cases putting them at risk from the effects of pollution, or heavy labour.
Li Wei, of the Beijing Lawyers Association, said, "To curb such cases, prosecutors visiting prisons should perform their supervisory duties and prevent guards abusing their powers by forcing inmates to do heavy labour and beating them to death."
News of the Ganzhou Prison probe came as the Ministry of Justice announced plans to conduct a thorough investigation into illegal behaviour in prisons after a series of scandals across the country last year.
Prisons will scrutinize the identities of visitors and confiscate contraband goods including drugs, cash and cellphones, and will set up a mechanism to deal with dangerous items such as weapons and explosives.
Last year's incidents included many cases where sentences were reduced illegally and a breakout at a prison in Guangdong province in November.
Last week, three guards came under investigation for suspected negligence and abuse of power after being implicated in a case involving a prisoner at Nehe Prison in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province.
The prisoner, surnamed Wang, allegedly used a cellphone and WeChat to blackmail women living near the prison.