The summer of 2010 afforded me one of the most exciting experiences of my life. I was able to go back to my hometown, Shanghai, to work with excellent people in the Shanghai Jing'an Social Aid and Education Volunteers Association. The association is a non-governmental, non-profit organization. Its main task is to solve disputes among communities in the Jing'an district. The Prison Taskforce is a department of the association. It advocates for prisoners' rights when they are in prison and helps them socialize after release. As one of the largest cities in the world, Shanghai has a population of 22 million, and it is growing every day. Due to the population explosion, the municipality built more prisons to meet the demand of an increasing inmate population. The total number of prisons reached 11 in 2010, and nine of them are located in suburban Shanghai. My job in the office was research, drafting applications, motions and reports.
The most unique experience was the field trips. Twice a week, the staff, volunteers and volunteer attorneys visit one prison, taking more than a month to visit all nine prisons in Shanghai. Attorneys either have clients in the prisons or they meet new clients. I found it exciting because it was my first time walking behind the walls. Also, it was my first time having close contact with inmates. We picked inmates to visit based on their Jing'an district residency. My work was to intake inmates to decide if they could become clients. Once they were qualified, I classified their issues based on topics so that I could assign them to the right lawyer. I was surprised that inmates were willing to share their stories with me. Some were very sad tragedies.
The Summer Human Rights Fellowship gave me the opportunity to explore a part of world that is out of sight for ordinary people. In Chinese culture, committing a crime disgraces the whole family; therefore when inmates are released, their family refuses to help. People also do not understand why we are spending time and resources helping "bad" people. Inmates' human rights are being continually violated in prison, and it only gets worse when they are out. Sometimes they have no choice but to commit crimes again. The organization is helping to solve this problem by providing legal assistance, temporary housing and jobs. The fellowship allowed me to go deep into the work they are doing, and at the same time I learned how to improve human rights in prisons. I am very grateful for the opportunity.