Tea Leaf Nation

Get Out of Jail Cheap

Get Out of Jail Cheap

It was a "Chinese-style prison break," according to news portal Tencent Finance: In 2007, Zhang Hai, then chairman of the Jianlibao Group, a congolomerate known for its energy drinks, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for fraud and embezzlement. In February 2011, he was released due to his assistance in helping solve other cases. Turns out, however, that Zhang’s selflessness wasn’t so selfless. In January 2014, Xinhua announced that Zhang hadn’t aided in other cases, but colluded with his lawyer, and a deputy warden, to get his freedom. (After being released, Zhang fled and remains at large as of this writing.)

It turns out that Zhang’s escape was no fluke: Money can buy freedom, or at least shorten jail terms, in some Chinese prisons. According to the respected paper Southern Weekend, Zhang’s lawyer bribed the deputy warden at the detention center where he was being held in southern Guangdong province, giving him about $5,000 in exchange for information that would help solve another case. The deputy warden then transferred the implicated prisoner to Zhang’s cell, so that Zhang would have a pretext to report the information himself. After Zhang tattled on his cellmate, the courts reduced Zhang’s 15-year sentence to 10 years. On two other occasions, Zhang’s "good behavior" led to further reductions first to eight years, then to six. 

After Zhang’s scheme came to light, journalists began digging deeper into the world of Chinese prison politics. A former warden from the southern province of Jiangxi, who used the pseudonym Luo Xin, told the Southern Weekend that freedom was indeed for sale. "For only $17, you can find people to take tests for you and get the corresponding certificates," Luo said. "For every certificate of achievement demonstrating a level of technical accomplishment, you can get 20 days off your sentence." Luo added that buying newspapers, apparently a backdoor method to bribe prison workers, was another popular way to get out of jail early. "Buy 20 papers," which cost about $5 each in the inflated prison economy, "and you can expect to reduce your sentence by 30 days," he told Southern Weekend

Another tried and true method for buying an early exit involves convicts in the same cell choosing someone to pretend to attempt escape, wrote the Shanghai-based news site East Day. "Then multiple people report on him so that their ‘contributions’ earn reduced sentences." East Day described a successful instance where two inmates received 17 and 20 months off their respective sentences in 2004 for reporting the "planned escape" of a third. (The paper did not say what happened to the third inmate.)

Reducing sentences for prisoners who "contribute" is intended "to reduce costs" in the justice system, Professor Hong Daode of the China University of Political Science and Law told news site China Business Media. But in China, a "long chain" of corruption had formed: "Fake contributions have become a secret black market," he said. China’s criminal law system "easily leads to corruption," Shang Aiguo, a legal scholar who works for China’s highest court, told Southern Weekend. "Judges and prison police have total control over whether to reduce sentences," adding that "the greater the power, the greater the opportunities for rent seeking and exchanging assets for cash."

By and large, Chinese Internet users agreed that flaws in China’s justice system allowed Zhang to escape. "The public mainly pays attention to ‘entrances’ (judicial verdicts), and ignores ‘exits,’ (sentence reduction, parole, and release for medical reasons)," Ma Changshan, a law professor at the East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter. "That’s precisely how the rich and powerful have been getting around the law in recent years." In a representative comment about Zhang Hai’s exit, another Weibo user wondered, "Is there anything left in China that those in power can’t exchange for money?"

Few commenters spared a word for Zhang himself, but one noted that the fugitive "seems to have done well enough for himself in this life," going from a shackled prisoner to a free man abroad. "You could even make a movie about it," he added. Shawshank Redemption it ain’t.