A drug addict at a drug rehabilitation center in Changsha, Hunan Province. Photos: CFP
Jing Shi has many memories about her time in compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers. It wasn't the centers themselves, nor the tasteless cabbage soup. It wasn't sharing two single beds with five people or the faces of inmates who jumped off the building to their deaths. Her most haunting memory is the work, relentless monotonous labor without end.
"You work and work and work, you can't go to sleep if you can't finish the work," recalled Jing, 51, a recovered drug addict from Yunnan Province.
Workload included embroidery, sorting out beans, polishing gemstones, raising livestock and other farming tasks.
"I saw a large guy crying like a baby, because he couldn't finish sorting out the beans and wasn't allowed to sleep," said Jing.
Jing was in and out of compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers six times in 10 years. She and many former drug users bear witness to the dark days when violence and abuse plagued almost all such institutions. Though the situation has improved greatly, questions remain as to whether the existence of the drug detention centers is justified.
In March, about a dozen UN entities issued a joint statement calling for the closure of all compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers, as they raise "human rights issues and threaten the health of detainees."
These detentions usually happen without the bother of due process or sufficient legal and judicial review. Inmates have reported experiencing "physical and sexual violence, forced labor, sub-standard conditions, denial of healthcare and other measures that violate human rights," according to the statement.
"Since 2003, the regulations on treatment of drug addicts have improved," said Chu Chen'ge, a professor at Northwest University of Politics and Law, whose research focuses on drug control efforts in China.
"Our policies and procedures are quite strict in terms of protecting people's rights and helping them. There are certainly problems in enforcement but I think these have been only isolated cases," said Chu.
People doing manual labor at the Chongqing Drug Rehabilitation Center, on June 23, 2010. Photo: CFP
Former drug users tell a different story.
Jing started using heroin in 1995 under pressure from people around her. In 1999, she was caught and sent to a compulsory detention center.
"Unless you've been inside one, you can't understand what it was like," said Jing. "I saw people jump off buildings, try to hurt themselves or end their own life. They wouldn't do that if not for that feeling of torture."
In 2011, over 171,000 drug users underwent forced drug treatment, official statistics show.
When drugs first came to prominence as a major social issue in the 1990s, local governments and security departments established rehab centers. However, a lack of funds saw things take a turn for the worse. Detainees didn't have enough to eat and constantly fought with each other or were beaten by wardens, recalled Wang Wen, a former drug user from Yunnan.
Wang was first caught using heroin and sent to rehab in 1989 at the age of 21. He has returned there at least five times over the past two decades. He paints a picture of horribly overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with 30 to 40 people sharing a living space of just 14 square meters, with awful sanitation facilities.
In a horrific twist of irony, drugs began to be smuggled inside the centers while the guards turned a blind eye. "I know of cases where over 100 inmates shared one needle inside the rehab center," he said.
These major breakdowns in the system were down to the lack of effective treatment options. Psychological counseling and follow-up care were nonexistent while the staff had only limited experience and expertise on how to treat drug addicts. Their method of choice was to "cure" addicts by putting them through endless hours of manual labor.
"The authorities seemed to believe that drug users are lazy, and needed to be taught to appreciate a hard day's work," said Wang. "But nobody likes to be forced to work."
Many inmates were forced to work over 10 hours a day and endured physical punishment if they could not finish their assigned tasks, he said. At first, the work was fairly mundane, like making matchboxes. During the 1990s, the wardens created external work schedules, sending them to construction sites or to repair roads, which earned more money for the facilities, according to Wang. "Of course the inmates got paid very little, or not at all," he added.
Wang has been helping drug users since his last detention in 2005. He now works at a Beijing-based NGO, Dongzhen Nalan Culture Communication Centre.
Some small reform
There is a silver lining. Wang says he has seen a measure of improvement in the treatment of addicts. Many facilities require their staff to be trained in counseling or helping drug addicts.
Around 2004, the government started to tighten regulations on compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers. Physical punishment and beatings were prohibited. In 2008, the Narcotics Control Law was passed, further regulating the incarceration and treatment of drug addicts.
The law stipulates that a drug user has to be declared an addict by both health and public security departments. Addicts will first be asked to attend a course of rehabilitation while remaining part of the community. Should they refuse to attend this course, or relapse, the police can then send them for compulsory detention and rehabilitation.
This works in theory. In practice, some former addicts say the police often declare someone to be an addict solely based on a urine test and some who test positive are sent straight to compulsory detention.
The process for an addict sent to compulsory rehabilitation is to stay in a police-run center for three months before being transferred to a facility run by judicial departments for about two years.
Reeducation through labor still is a major method used to treat drug users. People who have been to the rehabilitation centers more than twice were sent to labor camps. Many have been sent to labor camps over and over again.
"Things certainly have improved, but based on what drug users told me, problems still exist, such as questionable detention, sexual violence, physical abuse and long working hours," he said. "Such things still happen from time to time."
"I think they [compulsory detention and rehabilitation centers] should be closed, because they don't work," said Jing. "Everybody relapses. It doesn't matter if they lock you up as long as you still want to use drugs." Jing recovered in 2006 and now volunteers at a local peer education project in Kunming.
Many agree with Jing as the relapse rate is very high among addicts who were sent to compulsory detention centers, raising questions as to the entire system's effectiveness.
Another major issue, however, is the drug user registration and tracking system. Anyone caught using drugs ends up in the system permanently. No matter the person dies or has been clean for decades, their names remains in the nationwide system.
Whenever a person on the list uses their ID to check into a hotel or buy a ticket, the police are alerted and can barge in to demand a urine test. This leads many former drug users to claim they are constantly harassed.
The UN joint statement calls for implementation of "voluntary, evidence-informed and rights-based health and social services in the community."
Gentler hand on offer
However, the centers may stay open for now due to limited choices on offer. The few private rehab centers that exist are quite expensive and may not be trusted. The country is making forays into promoting community rehabilitation but this is still a work in progress. Many point out that a lack of professional help and stable, long-term logistics are major obstacles to community rehabilitation.
"I think in China, drug users have very limited options; compulsory detention and rehabilitation make up a major part of the current solution," said Wang Yuecheng, 24, a social worker in Guangdong Province. "I think such centers are still necessary to help drug addicts, but of course there is a need for improvement."
Wang Yuecheng worked at a community rehab facility in Dongguan, Guangdong, for about a year in 2010. The government outsourced services to social workers to help with a variety of tasks at the community level, including drug rehabilitation.
The two social workers in Wang Yuecheng's team covered nearly 50 registered drug users.
It was Wang Yuecheng's job to establish a trusting relationship with drug users in his community and visit them. He helped them in small ways, such as offering some counseling or helped them contact their employers.
"I'm not sure how effective our work was, but I believe at least we were there to provide some company, so they know who to turn to when they need help," said Wang Yuecheng.