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October 23, 2009

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Lax prison security in spotlight

THE north China jailbreak that sparked a nationwide manhunt and left one guard dead has put the security situation within the nation's prison system under examination.

Media reports yesterday quoted prison insiders as saying guards were often overworked and basic security rules were lax.

Four inmates broke out of the Hohhot No. 2 Prison in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region last Saturday, killing guard Lan Jianguo and stealing a cab before one of them was shot dead and the others were arrested, 67 hours after the escape. A police officer was injured, and a hostage, who was freed during the capture, was also hurt.

Lan's family was given 20,000 yuan (US$2,928) by the Ministry of Justice and the prison authority for his sacrifice.

Investigators said they are looking into how the men - a convicted killer and three armed robbers - escaped, including how they apparently defeated a security system designed to read the irises of prison guards.

The Hohhot prison is crowded with felons while security staff is in short supply, a guard who has worked at the facility for more than 10 years was quoted as saying yesterday by China Youth Daily. The officer, who was not identified, said work shifts exceeding 10 hours were routine and the guards were chronically fatigued.

A single guard could be in charge of up to 50 prisoners during work or exercise time as the prisoners were often scattered over a large area, Xinhua news agency reported.

Security was also compromised when construction workers were brought in from the outside and were allowed to roam freely throughout the prison, insiders said.

Their presence in civilian dress may explain why the escapees were not stopped when the inmates walked out with one of them dressed as a guard and the others in street clothes.

Tough economic times are turning prisons into business enterprises, Wang Ping, a professor of China University of Political Science and Law, told the News China magazine.

"Some prisons are forced to focus on production to survive, which makes prison time less of a punishment," Wang said.


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