Features | Society | East Asia

Cracks in the System: COVID-19 in Chinese Prisons

The spread of the disease in prisons reveals flaws in China’s epidemic countermeasures.

By Zi Yang for
Cracks in the System: COVID-19 in Chinese Prisons
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

On February 26, China’s Ministry of Justice released the second batch of data on COVID-19 outbreaks in the country’s prison system. As of February 25, there were 555 confirmed infections in five prisons of three provinces — Hubei, Shandong, and Zhejiang — up from 512 confirmed cases reported on February 21 when the Ministry of Justice made its first announcement on COVID-19 outbreaks in China’s prisons. Four of those infected were in critical condition. Among the five prisons, the Wuhan Women’s Prison had the greatest number of infections. According to the February 26 announcement, there have been no death among infected inmates and no outbreaks have been reported in any other Chinese prisons.

During the press conference, the Ministry of Justice’s deputy head, Xiong Xuanguo, admitted shortcomings in the prison system’s efforts at disease control. Moreover, Xiong confirmed that some prison officers who came into contact with individuals from affected areas in Hubei did not truthfully report their contact history, leading to incomplete quarantines. Due to such lapses, infected prison officers brought the novel coronavirus to their workplaces, which led to outbreaks affecting hundreds. A number of provincial officials have been sacked or punished and Xiong promised to step up disease control in the prison system.

Yet the number of infected in China’s prisons continue to rise. As of February 29 the total number of infected inmates in Wuhan city’s prisons stood at 806. The same day, Wuhan’s new Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin paid a visit to Wuhan’s Number Two Detention Center and gave orders to halt outbreaks in “special institutions,” a reference to correctional facilities. Data released on February 29 showed that almost half (233 out of 565) of new infection cases out of Wuhan were inmates in the city’s prison system.

The Case of Madame Huang

While Ministry of Justice and local officials were busy organizing disease control in prisons, other institutions in Beijing were putting together an investigation team tasked with fact-finding in Wuhan. On February 27, a joint investigation team made up of personnel from the Central Politics and Law Commission, Ministry of Justice, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and Ministry of Public Security were sent to Hubei to investigate an incident that shocked leaders in Beijing. Despite having high body temperature, an ex-inmate surnamed Huang was able to leave Wuhan for Beijing a few days after release without completing the mandatory 14-day quarantine. On March 2, Xinhua published a summary of the joint investigation team’s findings, which provided valuable information on loopholes within China’s COVID-19 countermeasures.

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Madame Huang is a 61-year-old who once worked as the deputy head of the finance unit of a water resources and aquatic products bureau in a rural Hubei county. In 2014, Huang was handed a 10-year sentence on corruption charges and served in the province’s Wuhan Women’s Prison. During her incarceration, Huang received two sentence reductions and was scheduled for release on February 17, 2020. However, on January 29, a prison guard working in Huang’s section of the prison was confirmed with COVID-19. Huang was identified as a close contact. As a consequence, after fulfilling her sentence on February 17, Huang had to complete a 14-day quarantine at the Women’s Prison and her body temperature was twice confirmed to be higher than normal, respectively on February 18 and 19.

Amid the quarantine, Huang contacted her family members in Beijing, who then reached out to prison officials to arrange an immediate release. A plan was hatched, wherein a prison officer would deliver Huang to a highway toll booth north of Wuhan for Huang’s family to take her home. Before leaving, prison officials made Huang sign a 14-day self-quarantine agreement. On the morning of February 21, a prison officer took Huang and another ex-inmate to the pre-arranged location, where both were picked up by their families. Apparently, no health checks were conducted at the location, and Huang arrived in Beijing the next day in her family’s private vehicle, slipping through the capital city’s health checkpoints. Two days after her arrival in Beijing, Huang was confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus and transported to a local hospital for treatment. Currently, she is in stable condition.

The fact that a person known to have been exposed to the virus and showing symptoms was nevertheless able to enter into the nation’s capital shocked high-level officials and the abovementioned joint investigation team was soon dispatched to Hubei. In its report, the investigation team deemed the incident a “severe case” of “dereliction of duty” with “terrible influences” that “brought great hidden dangers to epidemic prevention and control in the capital.” Furthermore, the report criticized the “poor work performance” of Wuhan Women’s Prison and called the prison’s internal administration and enforcement of rules “chaotic.” The Hubei provincial Department of Justice, Prison Bureau, and Wuhan Women’s Prison were excoriated — a number of provincial officials have already been sacked and punished. The report concluded by demanding all prisons in China to strictly enforce the 14-day quarantine for recently released inmates. All prisons of Hubei province, in addition to prisons of Shandong province’s Jining city and Zhejiang province’s Quzhou city, must settle recently released inmates in designated locations until the epidemic is completely over.

The Revelations of Huang’s Case

Huang’s case provided valuable insights into China’s epidemic countermeasures. First and foremost, strict regulations have not been completely applied in reality. As we have witnessed, the mandatory post-release on-site 14-day quarantine was not completed before Huang was delivered to her family in an official vehicle driven by a prison officer.

Second, the extent of the center’s control is limited and even in conflict with interests of some local actors. Despite the government’s highly centralized nature, Beijing cannot micromanage everything in the fight against COVID-19, as demonstrated by the “chaotic” management by Wuhan Women’s Prison’s administrators, made worse since correctional facilities are supposed to be the most secure places, with military-like efficiency and discipline.

Third, official misconduct and ineffectiveness plague China’s epidemic countermeasures. Although the investigation summary omitted how Huang’s family convinced prison officials to release her before the completion of the mandatory quarantine, under the table deals were certainly possible. Moreover, Huang slipped through at least three health checkpoints while her body temperature was abnormal: one when leaving Wuhan, one when entering Beijing, and another when entering her family’s residential compound. According to Xinhua, Huang was able to do so because of the careless attitude of those manning the checkpoints, which demonstrated that loopholes are aplenty in China’s epidemic countermeasure. Not to mention that prison management remained lax throughout January as COVID-19 spread rapidly to all parts of China.

Finally, transparency continues to be a major issue in China’s COVID-19 fight. The Ministry of Justice made its first official admission of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons on February 21, 23 days after Wuhan Women’s Prison first confirmed an infected prison guard on January 29, and in the case of Rencheng Prison of Shandong province, the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed on January 21, even earlier than the previous example. Therefore, the question is, why did it take so long for China’s Ministry of Justice to make an official statement on all prison outbreaks? A speculation would be that ministerial decision makers were withholding information for an opportune moment, likely with political considerations in mind. Either way, such lack of transparency is most probably not limited to China’s prison and justice officials alone.

In conclusion, Huang’s case only caught Beijing’s attention because she brought the virus to the nation’s closely guarded capital. We do not know how many cases similar to that of Huang occurred elsewhere in China. Revelations from Huang’s case show China’s epidemic countermeasure is dysfunctional in particular areas and not operating ideally. Opacity remains a major challenge and official Chinese COVID-19 information demands much more scrutiny.

Zi Yang is a Senior Analyst with the China Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Follow him on Twitter @ZiYangResearch.