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November 12, 2019

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Suicide watch: Renewing hope in inmates

When 49-year-old Wang was incarcerated in Shanghai’s Nanhui Prison, suicide still weighed heavily on his mind. He had strangled his wife to death in a fit of temper, and his family had renounced him.

After his crime, Wang attempted suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of a local hotel. He survived with multiple fractures but lost feeling in his lower body.

At his trial, Wang received the death sentence with reprieve, which was later reduced to life imprisonment. In August 2015, he entered Nanhui Prison.

According to Cai Ting, deputy chief of the prison’s education and reform division, psychological counseling for inmates is needed to prevent suicides and other mental woes. For prison officials on the ground, helping inmates like Wang rebuild their lives is no easy task.

A psychological test given to Wang at the beginning of his sentence showed a strong bent toward suicide. The first task was to rid him of that desire.

Tian Jia, 36, was the prison officer in charge of the cell block where Wang was living a year ago. At first, Tian found it almost impossible to get Wang to talk to him. But Tian was unwilling to give up. He talked with previous prison officials who had overseen Wang’s incarceration and went ahead with his bid to get Wang to open up.

He eventually did, slowly. That’s when Tian learned that Wang hadn’t made any attempt to contact family members in the city of Fushun in Liaoning Province until last year. But he seldom received any response.

When he was reassigned to other duties, Tian pleaded to keep the Wang case.

“It’s like having to repair a broken circuit,” Tian said. “It’s not wise for different people to keep opening up the device again and again to see what’s wrong. For me, I had already unlocked some problems, so I wanted to assist my successor to supervise Wang.”

Wang responded to Tian’s continuing supervision by finally opening up to the prison official. He said he understood why his family was so disappointed in him, but he still wanted to reconnect with the family members.

“In July, Wang was diagnosed with serious gallstones,” Tian said. “The doctor said Wang’s health condition wasn’t conducive for a surgery, but Wang still wanted the operation.”

After being rejected by doctors, Wang kicked up a fuss. Tian was later told that Wang’s disease could be controlled by medicine and there was no need for surgery,

“Wang finally admitted that he had wanted the surgery because someone from his family would have to sign a consent form,” Tian told Shanghai Daily. “Then, I promised I would contact his family members again.”

Tian called Wang’s elder brother and asked him to write a letter to Wang to help ease his anxiety. The man agreed, and the letter was handed to Wang in August. Wang then wrote a letter back to the family.

Since then, the level of Wang’s suicide proclivity dropped from “extremely high” to “high.”

Lost all hope

Another prison officer, Li Wenbin had a similar case with a 30-year-old prisoner who killed his ex-wife on impulse and was sentenced to death with a reprieve.

“Like Wang, the man, who has a son and a daughter, also greatly regretted his actions but felt his family would never forgive him,” Li said. “He lost all hope and was suicide-prone.”

“He was always in bad temper and had fights with other inmates. But soon I found he was a person overwhelmed by shame and eager for the recognition of others. I encouraged him to participate in some activities. I criticized him for improper behavior and praised him when he corrected it. It helped rebuild his self-esteem,” Li added.

Li said in his experience, two groups of people are more prone to suicide or self-injury.

“One group is young prisoners in their 20s or 30s, who have got suspended death sentences that leave them with no hope for the rest of their lives. The other group is prisoners in their 60s or 70s, who see themselves dying in prison.”

Family ties play an important role in each instance. But those ties can be difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

One failed case involved 36-year-old prison official Zhu Shaozhen and a 66-year-old female inmate surnamed Zhang.

Zhang was shunned by her daughter after she was sentenced to eight years in jail for siphoning off money illegally.

“She suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease,” said Zhu. “She takes seven or eight medications a day and was once critically ill.”

But Zhang still hoped for her daughter’s forgiveness. When she was severely ill in October last year, Zhu tried to call her daughter to arrange a visit but the phone was never answered. The daughter had moved from Jiading District, so Zhu contacted local officials to locate her. When the visit finally occurred, the daughter refused to reveal her new address and asked Zhang to divorce her father.


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