Capital prison tests therapy on inmates

Wearing his gray prison uniform, Cai Guoqing sat in the cell where he recently spent a week in solitary confinement.

It wasn't easy, the 24-year-old recalled. "I didn't think I'd be able to manage seven days."

But his stint in solitary wasn't punishment - it was meditative therapy that was introduced in August at Beijing Prison. It is being tested at the prison as a way to help inmates with rehabilitation.

Unlike his usual cell, which he shares with six others, Cai's chamber during the programme was a 10-square-meter room with a bed, a chair and some calligraphy on the walls. Apart from sleeping and regular breaks for meals, for seven days his only task was to ponder three questions:

• What had his family done for him?

• What had he done for his family?

• How have his crimes affected his family?

Every day, for 15 hours, he was also given the chance to discuss his thoughts with a correctional officer trained in psychology and counseling.

"I did what I was asked, I shared my feelings," said Cai, who in 2011 was convicted of intentional homicide and given a suspended death sentence.

He recalled at one point he reminisced about his grandfather carrying him along a muddy road to the hospital when he was a child and felt a sudden sense of guilt.

"The therapy is based on using an inmate's own experiences to aid his rehabilitation," said Cao Guangjian, the prison's director of psychological correction. He said having time to sit in silence "allows him to free his mind".

Six inmates can be treated at one time, each getting their own cell in a white building separate from the main prison block. Cao said 40 inmates had volunteered for the therapy since it was introduced in August.

"Other treatments I have received were too formal, so I resisted," Cai said. "This sounded different. I was curious, so I gave it a go."

He likened the experience to conducting an operation in which he was the surgeon. Since the therapy, he said he has felt more at peace but also great sadness for his family.

Zhang Jinming, who is serving eight years for embezzling public funds, dubbed the treatment "a gas station for the mind". The 55-year-old was sent to Beijing Prison last year. He said he wrote to his daughter about the experience in therapy.

"I wanted to change, but I didn't know how," he said. "The therapy gave me a chance for introspection. Although some memories were bitter, I went on. I didn't want to hide from them."

Correctional officer and counselor Ren Peng said almost a third of the inmates who have volunteered have shown a desire to participate again.

"Inmates were mostly ordered to receive treatments before," she said. "Now it's the convicts themselves choosing to give it a try."

About 15 correctional officers at the prison have been trained in counseling and psychology at Fudan University in Shanghai as part of a larger support programme, Ren said.

Although Cao revealed that the pilot programme is ready to be rolled out nationwide, independent psychologists have raised doubts about the effects of the therapy.

Ma Ai, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, agreed that such a technique can help ease an inmates' mental stress, "but whether it aids rehabilitation is not clear yet".

If volunteers do not re-offend after they are released from prison, then the effect may be confirmed, he added.

Li Meijin, a criminal psychologist at the Chinese People's Public Security University, said the therapy won't work on all inmates. "Those who pose a high risk (to society) or are unwilling to be rehabilitated will certainly not be suitable for this."