Chinese prisons focus on convicts' mental health

A reading session is held last month at the Beijing Juvenile Correction center. The Information Office of the State Council published a white paper on judicial reform on Oct 9, 2012.

Increasing numbers of prison officers have been receiving psychological training with the aim of providing professional help to convicts, according to Beijing's prison administration.

More than 230 officers across the capital have already received national certificates.

However, the number of prison officers gaining these skills is still not enough to cope with demand, said Lu Yanyan, a senior officer responsible for correction of convicts at the administration, under the Beijing Justice Bureau.

Psychological education was introduced into eight prisons in the capital's correction system in 2001. Each prison has been also equipped with a mental health treatment room and equipment.

Nearly 80 police officers now take part in the psychological exams every year, while the administration invites experts to provide two-day psychological training to staff members every three months and cooperates with psychology departments at universities, she said.

"The psychological service has been taken on board as a key part of correction work in recent years, because it can make great contributions toward calming convicts down and helping police officers manage prisons," she said, citing Liangxiang prison in the city's southwest Fangshan district as an example.

Liangxiang, which houses up to 1,000 hardened criminals serving long-term sentences, has 14 prison officers specialising in psychological consultation and each can select a criminal in the section they are responsible for to be their assistant.

These police officers have national psychologist certificates and they develop classes or lectures for criminals every three months, said Chen Yongsheng, deputy director of psychological correction at the prison.

"We'll supply criminals with different psychological treatments, such as music therapy and mental analysis," he said.

Many criminals are not accustomed to the prison environment and feel anxious or depressed, he said, adding they are also impatient and nervous, especially in summer and at the start of their sentences.

"Some criminals have a troubled relationship with their family and display indifference and disappointment when in a bad mood," he said. "They are quick to engage in conflicts with others, which is not good for their rehabilitation and also presents challenges for our management."

The prison has established a special room with green plants for psychological consultations, and developed different kinds of activities to take place every three months, he said.

"They can also write letters to request one-to-one psychological consultations," he said.

The prison also organises inmates to perform plays every year in a bid to encourage them to become aware of mental health and inspire them to work toward their own rehabilitation.

A convict surnamed Xu, 53, who took part in a play, said he learned to understand himself through his performance.

He was first convicted for theft in the 1980s and returned to prison in 2008 after being convicted of fraud. His mother passed away while he was behind bars and he lost contact with his father and other relatives.

"I felt distorted and confused after I re-offended. I kept silent and took others as enemies, " he said.

However, prison officers tracked down Xu's father and two older sisters, persuading them to visit him, which inspired hope in Xu.

Based on this experience Xu directed a short play, depicting how he faced depression until his family and the prison officers reached out to him.

A former bank officer surnamed Yang, 30, who is five years into a 12-year sentence for fraud, echoed Xu's comments, saying police officers now pay more attention to mental health education than when he first came to the prison.

"I felt constrained and didn't know how to deal with things several years ago. But now, I'm often asked to play psychological games and take part in related tests," he said. "Sometimes, I also listen to light music in the room to relax myself," he added.