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Re-education Through Labor: Does it Work?
Summary:Many Chinese have recently called for an end to “re-education through labor” camps in light of recent political abuses. But even if real criminals are sent to the camps, studies suggest hard labor and harsh conditions do nothing more to rehabilitate inmates than normal prisons. They may even be counterproductive.

Photo: Laogai Research Foundation

By Eric Fish

Recently, a 39-year old Hunan woman was sentenced to 18 months of “re-education through labor” ( 劳动教养) by local officials for protesting what she considered light sentences given to her daughter’s rapists.

She was later released amid a public outcry, but for many, that wasn’t enough. The incident has prompted calls to end the entire re-education through labor system in China.

Inmates at these camps do everything from tree-planting and ditch-digging to working on an assembly line. 2007 figures from the Justice Ministry said that 400,000 people have gone through 310 labor camps since they were officially established in 1957. Independent estimates put that number well into the millions.

While political abuse of the system is common, in theory, it’s supposed to empower police to sentence a person guilty of minor crimes like theft and prostitution for up to four years imprisonment. According to China Daily, the system “expanded quickly as the country launched anti-crime campaigns beginning in 1983, and [it was] considered a good way to rehabilitate minor offenders.”

If we take that goal at face value - forget about the political abuses and assume everyone sent is actually guilty of a bona fide crime - then labor camps should at least reduce criminal recidivism to justify their existence.  

But studies suggest they don’t; and inmates might even have a higher rate of return to criminal activity after release than those who go through normal prisons.

No reliable studies have been released on the rehabilitation effects of labor camps in China, but similar issues have been studied in the United States – which has the world’s highest prison population.

In the 1980s and 90s, there was a correctional fad in the US where prisoners would undergo a military-like program of drills, chants and hard labor. In 1996, a study was done by a University of Maryland Criminology professor for the National Institute of Justice. It tracked people who went through these programs across the country and compared their recidivism rates upon release to those who’d done time in traditional prisons.

According to the study, “Results clearly show that the core elements of boot camp programs--military-style discipline, hard labor, and physical training—by themselves did not reduce offender recidivism.”

However, conventional wisdom might hold that if prisoners must endure hardship and suffer through harsh prison conditions, they’ll be dissuaded from risking a return visit with further crimes upon release. If this is the case, then China’s labor camps should thrive at reducing recidivism. Former prisoners routinely recount overcrowding, unsanitary facilities, excessive work hours and poor food at the camps.

But data once again casts serious doubt on conventional wisdom. A 2007 study conducted by two researchers from Yale and the University of Chicago asked, “Do Harsher Prison Conditions Reduce Recidivism?” It found that harsher prisons in fact don’t reduce post-release criminal behavior. It even says, “though not consistently statistically significant, our estimates suggest that harsher prison conditions may induce greater post-release recidivism among former federal inmates.”

A similar study published in 2008 by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Italy concluded that “a harsher prison treatment does not reduce former inmates' criminal activity. The extent of overcrowding and the number of deaths do not decrease the probability to be re-arrested.”

In China, some have recently looked to the case of serial killer Zhou Kehua as an utter failure of the system’s ability to rehabilitate. He reportedly spent a year in a labor camp 15 years ago for possessing firearms, which some netizens have speculated warped him and contributed to a descent into brutality that’s left nine dead.

If evidence suggests that hard labor can’t even produce the “re-education” that’s touted in the system’s name, then there’s little besides the appeal of free labor to justify the camps’ continued existence. 


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