EXPERIENCE: Life Inside, Observing a Taiwan Prison Clinic

EXPERIENCE: Life Inside, Observing a Taiwan Prison Clinic
Photo Credit: AlexVan @ Pixabay CC0

What you need to know

A revealing glimpse into life inside a Taiwanese prison.

Editor's note: Taiwan is currently undergoing a debate over an alarmingly high rate of recidivism. As many as four out of five prisoners in the country's jails are repeat offenders, leading to questions over whether prisons are serving any corrective or educational purpose. One element of this debate is that the denial of basic human rights in prisons is a major factor in contributing to the problem.

Touring the inside of a medical clinic and other facilities in a central Taiwan prison caused me to reflect deeply on the living conditions and medical care of prisoners in Taiwan.

Prisoners aim to behave well so they can earn promotion within the four-tier system that governs the standard of treatment and privileges in Taiwan’s prisons, at the top of which beckons an increased prospect of parole.

Though the official definition of a prison is a “correctional" or “educational” institution, some prisoners spend most of the time working, often in enforced silence.

They receive a measly NT$100 (US$3.25) to NT$200 per month as their "work income," and use this to buy daily necessities from the prison store. But even if they had a monthly allowance of NT$1,000, they would still be hard pressed to maintain normal living standards. Most of the time, they must rely on their family members to send money or daily necessities.

But does prison labor help achieve prisons' overarching goal of helping criminals turn over a new leaf and re-enter society?

Working off a debt

What kind of "work" do prisoners do to earn their income? Most produce goods under Taiwan’s “one prison, one specialty” policy.

Prisons around the country each have their own factories, which are sold to the general public via the government’s "Corrections Agency Handmade Goods Marketplace" website.

A screenshot of the homepage of the Corrections Agency Handmade Goods Marketplace website.

The section chief in charge of my tour explained the unique qualities of his prison’s products: Their soy sauce is not made with genetically modified yellow soybeans, but organic black soybeans; the ingredients of the daily baked goods such as bread and egg rolls are all natural, for example. The exquisite ceramic tea sets and utensils, crafted by the inmates, are also very impressive.

Moreover, as costs are very low they have a better cost efficiency compared with famous brands

The section chief confides: "[The prison’s] renovations also rely heavily on [the inmates’] expertise and manpower, because the prison doesn’t have any money for outside contracts.”

Clearly, there is a financial pressure on prisons to increase revenues, and as “prison labor-produced goods make use of low-cost labor to create greater economic returns,” it allows them to sell high quality hand-crafted commodities at bargain prices, without the need to adhere to minimum wage requirements.

Not all prisoners are selected to work in factories where they can receive an allowance. The vast majority will only receive a small amount of compensation for other labor-intensive work.

Missing medical care

In terms of medical care; prior to 2011, the prisons themselves were left in charge of purchasing their own medicine and hiring doctors to treat patients. Subsequently, inmates have been obliged to pay fees to join the national health insurance (NHI) service. If they are not insured or the insurance does not cover their expenses, then, just like the public, inmates must pay out of their own pockets to receive treatment.

However, allowing prisoners to sign up to NHI merely pays lip service to the ideals of progressive human rights as the reality is that many prisoners still struggle to obtain the treatment they require.

A senior assisting physician explained prison dentist visits are limited to 10 patients only. Yet there are thousands of prisoners on the waiting-list, and as appointments are back-logged for two-three months, a regular doctor can only offer painkillers until the prisoner is able to secure an appointment with a dentist.

Assisting physicians are only able to carry out simple blood and urine tests in prison facilities, and anything beyond that requires the samples to be sent back to the hospital for examination, with the only other normal check up being chest X-rays for early diagnoses of tuberculosis.

The poor hygiene of the prison environment and overcrowding of facilities leads to the vigorous spread of contagious diseases, especially skin infections or colds, so these are the only medical conditions prisons pay attention to. Less visible or chronic diseases are often overlooked.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / 達志影像
Prison inmates are obliged to pay fees for Taiwan' national health insurance scheme but receive treatment that pales in comparison to that enjoyed by those at liberty.

The assisting physician also said that prisoners often share their drugs, while some waste doctors’ time even when they are healthy because they enjoy the novelty of the visit.

Reflecting on rehabilitation

There are those who think that inmates don’t deserve a decent standard of living or basic human rights, but that view deserves serious scrutiny. Up to 90 percent of the prisoners in the jail I visited had been in and out of prison on drug offences. Due to lack of resources, prisons often cannot offer effective rehabilitation assistance to help inmates avoid re-offending after they reintegrate back into society.

After witnessing a system the outside world knows very little about, I realized most people do not care about what happens inside prisons; as long as prisoners are locked away in isolation, we are deemed to be protecting society.

But if those prisoners only emerge from prison to recommit the very same offenses for which they were originally incarcerated, are prisons serving any purpose other than earning the government a healthy profit from prison labor?

A response from the Chinese Correctional Association

Dr. Lu mentioned that “prison dentist visits are limited to 10 patients only. Yet there are thousands of prisoners on the waiting-list, and as appointments are back-logged for two-three months…”

The reality is that correctional institutions do lack sufficient dental care, but that is a result of local medical resource allocation and supply. Some doctors do only see 10 people during a visit, but others are very enthusiastic about taking the time to see more patients. In any case, prisons are not hospital clinics or a high-level bureau like the National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA), so we have neither the power, authority nor resources to hire more dentists to the prison clinic. Perhaps if the NHIA was willing to consider offering more health insurance points to doctors willing to come into prisons, this would provide more encouragement.

Yes, our correctional institutions are overcrowded, the demand for medical treatment is high, but visiting physicians are always looked after. Due to a serious shortage of manpower, the staff of correctional institutions continue to work overtime to make-up for those shortages, but it is a vicious circle, and so there are many people who either resign or transfer.

However, in the event of any accident, the Control Yuan will send back-up immediately, and carry out detailed investigations. When there is a slanderous attack from external sources, it is always a bitter pill to swallow, but we can only respond and plead our innocence. We hope that in her observational writing, Dr. Lu also understands that she should demand only the truth, and be more accurate, authentic and non-biased when writing about firsthand experiences.

Read Next: OPINION: Taiwan's Resumption of Executions Is a Major Diplomatic Own-Goal

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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