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June 13, 2011

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Ex-offenders scheme fears for future

AS Wang Guoping lifted his right arm to light a cigarette, it began to shake slightly, exposing a long white scar beneath the short sleeve of his worker's uniform.

Ten years after having had the tendon on his right arm cut when people caught him stealing, the injury never fully healed.

The scar reminds Wang of his past as a habitual thief, causing him to tremble, both physically and mentally, every time he picks up something.

Abandoned by his parents, Wang was adopted by an elderly woman, but when she changed her mind later he was back on the streets again.

Surviving as a thief, Wang, who is now 29, has spent five spells in labor camps and jail since he was a teenager.

"Life left me no choice. I had to steal for a living or kneel down on the street, begging others to drop a coin for the sake of humanity," said Wang.

Pausing for a moment, he added: "But those are things of the past, before I was reborn here."

Wang now works at a special facility named "Station of a New Journey" in Baoshan District, taking pride in his work folding sheets and earning 1,500 yuan (US$231) a month.

He is one of 18 men living and working at the unit, set up in 2008 to offer temporary jobs, free shelter and skills training for people recently released from prison.

Most had been dangerous criminals - whose offences included murder, rape and robbery - and many had spent more than 20 years behind bars.

On release from prison, they had no family, shelter or jobs, so they came to the Baoshan facility which seeks to prevent them reoffending.

It is one of the four such facilities across the city that works together with private companies to provide jobs for ex-offenders. And despite the hard work and low pay, no one wants to leave.

"I will have my 30th birthday party here next Sunday together with my new 'father,'" said Wang, "I'm very grateful to him and the government and I will do this job well for the rest of my life."

Sitting beside Wang as he said this was his "father," his tutor at the facility, Zhao Guoping. Hearing the younger man's words, Zhao's face showed a mixture of happiness, pride and anxiety.

Zhao, in his 50s, is a member of the Shanghai Volunteers' Commission of Social Assistance and Education, a government-owned organization that set up the project.

Proud and happy to see that Wang has turned away from crime, Zhao is concerned about the future of the facility, which has offered a home and job to 99 people since it opened.

For while all his 18 current "students" would like to stay, they are supposed to leave to make room for newcomers. According to Zhao, none want to leave as they believe employers will shun them due to their criminal records and lack of skills.

And they cannot be thrown onto the streets, added Zhao.

Meanwhile, other former prisoners who would benefit from the facility are denied places.

Zhao is calling for more funds to expand the program, offering help to more ex-offenders and improving training. While to date, private businesses have funded the government-organized initiative, Zhao wants the government and state-owned businesses to help too.

"Most of the companies that sponsored our facilities or offered job positions are small private-owned companies whose bosses want to do some good for society," said Zhao,

"But funds are very limited and that prevents us from holding lectures and training courses."

Other volunteers said discrimination against people who have previous criminal records prevents them from finding jobs.

"Big state-owned firms won't hire men who were felons," said 51-year-old volunteer Huang Yueping.

"The current situation makes the facilities the only existence for those who really need help," said Zhao.

"It's as though they leave prison and only to go into another smaller one - although they now have their freedom, they choose to spend their lives inside here," Zhao said.


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