A visit with an ex-street gangster in the Shanghai jail

Because he admitted his crime of murder and began to reform, Xu Jia-Biao's sentence was commuted to life in prison and later reduced to 14 years. With good behavior, he could have the sentence reduced even further.

Under Chinese law, the death penalty can in many cases be suspended during a two year probation period if the criminal ''truly repents.'' It's a powerful incentive.

Xu Jia-Biao spends his sleeping hours with another prisoner in a 4-by-8-foot cell with no windows or toilet. He is a 27-year-old former youth gang member and convicted murderer currently imprisoned at the maximum security Shanghai Jail.

Originally built by the British in the 1920s, the Shanghai Jail is a huge complex housing 3,500 male and female prisoners. Until now, no American journalists have been allowed inside the prison.

This reporter was able to visit different parts of the jail, take photos and question prisoners. The interview with Xu Jia-Biao took place in front of jail officials.

Xu was dressed in a plain blue shirt, pants and sandals. Except for his close-cropped GI haircut, he looked no different than other Chinese men on the street. Xu had been a member of a Shanghai youth gang in 1976. Officials don't often speak about the existence of such gangs, but jail director Li Ren-Tang said the problem still exists today. Youth not able to find jobs sometimes form gangs which commit burglaries and other crimes.

Xu was arrested six years ago. Some members of a rival gang came to his house seeking revenge for an earlier fight. He stabbed two of them, killing one and seriously wounding another. A short time later, he was tried and convicted. The sentence was death, with a two-year reprieve.

''During the Cultural Revolution, I didn't go to school,'' said Xu. ''I got mixed up with a street gang. I wanted the easy life, with no work.''

After the conviction, ''I admitted the crime, but I lost heart because of the tough sentence. I thought I was going to die. But with the work of the staff and through education, I began to have more confidence.''

Jail officials say that many other prisoners reform and eventually have their sentences reduced. They claim that a combination of tough discipline and reform produces results. Only 5 percent of the released prisoners ever return to jail, according to officials.

Jail director Li says that about 70 percent of the prisoners are convicted of theft or corruption. Some 10 percent are jailed for ''undermining the social order'' (usually being members of youth gangs), 7 percent for murder and rape and 2 percent for being ''counterrevolutionaries.'' None of the political prisoners were made available for interview.

Xu Jia-Biao and his fellow prisoners lead strictly regulated lives. Everyone rises at 6 a.m. sharp, eats breakfast and begins work by 7 a.m.

Prison workshops supply parts or assemble goods for local factories. Prisoners make watch cases, sew clothing and work on prison construction projects. They work hard for seven hours a day, six days a week.

Afternoons are divided between education classes and ''political study.'' Since most of the inmates don't have much formal education, there are elementary and high school classes in Chinese language, math and other subjects. They can also learn English and Japanese, the two most popular foreign languages in China today.

Prison officials claim that political study of various Communist Party and government documents help reshape prisoners' attitudes toward society. These classes are required three times per week.

Each cellblock has a unit of 10-15 prisoners who act as combination therapy, political study and watchdog group. Group pressure is brought to bear on prisoners with antisocial attitudes. The pressure is significant because these groups help decide who gets bonuses for prison work and even make recommendations on reduced sentences.

Jail director Li runs a tight ship. Prisoners are allowed one visit per month from family or friends. There is an escalating system of punishment for infraction of prison rules, including lock-up in solitary confinement. If prisoners commit crimes while in jail, they are tried in court and usually severely punished.

There has only been one escape attempt in the last eight years. In 1974 a prisoner failed to get out while hiding on the underside of a truck. The nightly lockdown and three sets of steel security gates guarding the jail entrance certainly discourage escape attempts.

''We combine punishment with political reform and labor,'' says Li. Prisoners who behave are taken by bus to visit nearby factories and communes. Ex-cons regularly come to speak at the prison to talk about how they reintegrated back into society. Most importantly, prisoners are guaranteed jobs before being released.

While prison discipline is tough, guards carry no weapons, not even billyclubs. There are also strict rules against verbally or physically abusing prisoners.

''It's inconceivable that prisoners would take staff hostages as has happened in some Western countries,'' says director Li. ''I often walk around by myself, without bodyguards. Nothing has ever happened.

''We teach our guards to respect the prisoners as human beings,'' he concluded, ''and the prisoners respond accordingly.''

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