Visiting Detention Centres in China

Yu Grace Mou
Lecturer in Law, University of Hull

In many parts of China, the conditions of the detention centre can be depicted as egregiously dreadful. Due to the prevalent use of custody for suspects pending trial, especially during the ‘Hard Strike’ anti-crime campaign periods,[1] all the cells of the detention centre are filled with detainees, exceeding its full capacity. Over the last thirteen years, I have had a number of opportunities to look at the living conditions of detention centres in certain parts of China. I still vividly remember the first time I was asked to go with a judge to try a divorce case in a detention centre in 2003. I worked as a clerk in a local court in West China as part of the law school training programme. When passing the cells, I quickly looked into the small viewing windows and observed the life inside high walls and behind metal doors. I was shocked at the scene behind the door: about twenty women were squatting inside a ten square-metre bare room with no furniture or washing facilities. It was difficult to conceive a person managing to live within such a minimal space for months or even years in exceptional cases.

Similar experiences occurred a few years later when I visited different detention centres accompanying criminal judges to deliver legal documents to defendants. The condition of detention centres varied significantly from region to region. Those listed for detainees with a higher bureaucratic rank were always well built and had better facilities. However, the vast majority of suspects were housed in ill-funded detention centres and the cells were always congested. On one occasion, we arrived there at lunch time in a dilapidated detention centre. A staff and a detainee assistant dragged a large metal bucket and dispatched meals through the small window of the cell door. The odour of the meal permeated the air and was overpoweringly unpalatable. When the staff ladled the watery food into small metal bowels, it was clear that there was hardly any substance inside. My impression of the meagre meal was confirmed in a former prisoner’s memoir. When interviewed by a journalist, the former soldier who had endured tough physical training in the army recalled:

‘People died in the detention centre without knowing the cause. Every now and then, the doctor gave us some vitamins. When asked why, the doctor told us that they could not find out the reason — probably because of the lack of nutrition. Some people who had been detained there for three or four years had not had one bite of a vegetable. ‘[2]

Overcrowded cells increase the risk of inmate violence. In order to manage the cells, some detention centres use ‘cell boss (laotou)’ or ‘suspect informants’ to control other detainees confined in the cells, which could exacerbate the extent of violence in the detention centre. In 2009, a suspect called Li Qiaoming was found dead as a result of an assault by the ‘dominant prisoners’ in the detention centre. This was explained by the authorities as ‘accidently hitting his head when playing a game of hide-and-seek with other prisoners’.[3] After the incidence of Li Qiaomin, reports on similar death causes in detention centre were released in other provinces including Guangxi, Shanxi, and Hebei.

In 2012 and 2013, I conducted a six-month fieldwork project in a local prosecutor’s office in China. Once again, I had many opportunities to visit the local detention centres with prosecutors. One of the main detention centres that I visited frequently was a dilapidated building on the verge of the city. In this detention centre, the cells were separated from the ‘case handling area’ — interrogation rooms. I was not able to view the condition of the cells. The layout of interrogation rooms was comprised of two areas, separated by iron bars. Behind the bars, the suspect would sit on a small plastic chair which was attached to the floor with his or her hands manacled. The prosecutors would sit outside the iron bars facing the suspect. In the summer, electric fans were provided in the interrogation room, but they were for state officials’ use only.

Despite the fact that every time I visited the detention centre a couple of detainees were painstakingly cleaning the building, the centre was still a very dirty place, with lots of mosquitos and unpleasant smells.  Due to the adverse conditions, prosecutors were usually reluctant to interrogate the suspect detained there. One pregnant prosecutor completely avoided her visit to the detention centre due to her concerns about the limited hygiene of the facilty by delegating her interrogation work to her colleagues. Since prosecutors tried to reduce visits to the detention centre as much as possible, cases were allowed to accumulate and after reaching a certain total, the prosecutor would undertake a batch of interrogations. To shorten the interrogation time and dispose of the case in the most expedient way, questioning was normally formulated beforehand, encouraging the suspect to confirm the account provided in the investigative dossier.

A lot of detention centres are old buildings. About twenty years ago, it was rare for the defence lawyer to interview the suspect during the period of custody; therefore many detention centres lack rooms to facilitate this function. In the report of defence lawyer Wang Faxu, there was only one meeting room available in a detention centre accommodating 250 detainees. In Zhaozhuang city, Shandong province, there is only one meeting room in the detention centre; hence defence lawyers had to queue for a whole day in order to meet their clients. For detention centres where the meeting rooms are provided, most of them are designed in such a poor fashion that the defence lawyers’ meeting with their clients cannot proceed without encountering encumbrance. For instance, the meeting rooms in one of the detention centres where I conducted field work were separated by a wall with a small glass window. The suspect and the defence lawyer had to speak very loudly so that they could hear each other. In another detention centre in the same region, the suspect and the defence lawyer had to communicate by phone, which could be cut off by the detention centre staff at any time. Apparently these meeting rooms are specially designed to control the interaction between the defence lawyer and the suspect, rather than to protect the confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship.

The experience of life in detention centres catalyses the suspect’s obedience during the interaction with the police, especially for suspects who initially refuse to compromise. Suspects who refuse to confess are more likely to spend a much longer time in the detention centre prior to trial. In order to get out of the detention centre more quickly, many suspects are compelled to make a confession that conforms to the official version of truth constructed by the police.  Given the direct relationship between the status quo of the detention centre and the occurrence of miscarriages of justice, in addition to the incidence of sudden death reported in the media, reform of detention centres–changing its physical conditions as well as the processes through which they are managed — seems imperative. However, such reform is beset with obstacles. Given that effective reform will inevitably change the power structure of the pre-trial process, and that the stakeholder controlling the detention centre — the police, the most powerful institution in the criminal justice system — is unlikely to relinquish its interest, reform seems unlikely.[4]  Thus, despite the outcry to reform of detention centres by academics and activists, the police reform agenda released by the Ministry of the Public Security in 2016 has not mentioned detention centre reform at all, and the reality is that the reform of detention centres is unlikely to be considered in the near future. As a result, aside from occasional face-lifting projects in certain detention centres, life inside these high grey walls continues to be one of suffering, inching towards the day when the trial is held and the people inside may or may not be transported to different destinations.

Yu Grace Mou is the author of ‘The constructed truth – the making of police dossiers in China‘ published OnlineFirst in Social & Legal Studies (2016).  She has research interests in comparative criminal justice, evidence law, and the legal history of criminal justice.


[1] The ‘Hard Strike’ (Yanda) Campaign is a series of crime-suppressing movements launched by the Chinese Government. During the ‘Hard Strike’ period, state officials prioritise speedy arrests, fast trials and mass sentencing, which has been criticised for its infringement of human rights. More analysis of the ‘Hard Strike’ Campaign, see Harold Tanner, Strike hard: Anti-crime campaigns and Chinese criminal justice, 1979-1985 (Cornell University East Asia Program 1999). Susan Trevaskes, ‘Severe and Swift Justice in China’ (2007) 47 British Journal of Criminology 23-41.

[2] Zhen Yanshui, ‘Rule by the boss of the cell’ (26 March 2009, Southern Weekend) <; accessed 27 July 2013.

[3] Sun Changyong, The research on the suspect’s rights (China law press 2010) 70.

[4] See Liang Huixing’s interview in the media. In Rongzhiyou’s blog (15 February 2016) ‘Analysis: Reform of detention centres miscarries again’, available at <; accessed at 16 September 2016.


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