FOSHAN - As a professional criminal defense lawyer, I have been to detention centers everywhere. They are of course all different, but at a recent first-time meeting with a criminal suspect he was separated from me by frosted glass.
Because I had come all the way from Beijing, the pre-trial official of the Public Security Bureau at Foshan City, Guangdong Province was very straightforward and agreed to “accompany” me to the meeting the following day.
The center, which is situated in the Nanhai District of Foshan, greets visitors with a very tall gate. The road in front is wide with large, dense trees on either side.
The detention center looks quite impressive.
Like a lot of other family members and lawyers waiting for their planned encounter, I squatted at the roadside under the shade of the trees and waited for their opening hours after the lunch break. It didn’t take long before the pre-trial policeman arrived in his official car. I followed him into the reception room.
After some formalities I was led in to the innermost interview room at the end of a narrow corridor. The room was very old and no bigger than about six or seven square meters, separated into two parts. The larger part is for the lawyer and occupies two-thirds of the room, equipped with one broken desk and two chairs on which you can barely sit near the inner side of the room.
The lower part of the partition wall is made of brick while the upper part is completely sealed by a transparent frosted plastic board, turning yellow with age.
At one side of this partition is a wobbly door. On the other side is where the prisoner sits. It’s a long but very narrow inner room. There is no ventilation whatsoever.
We heard a noise, and suddenly all the criminal suspects appeared escorted by guards.
“Here they are!” roared the pre-trial policeman. A small and pale criminal suspect walked towards us with quick, short steps. “In you go! In you go!” The policeman's voice echoed in the tiny meeting room. Once the small pale man had gone through the wobbly door, he was shut into the small, unventilated space.
“Hello. Are you…?” I said, pronouncing his name quite loudly toward the plastic board while staring hard in an attempt to recognize the person inside. But I couldn’t see clearly at all through the frosted glass separating us.
The obscure shadow made some echoing noise. Like when the egg white and yolk have been beat together, everything was impossible to separate. Some sound emanated from the door crack. I couldn’t understand a thing.
“”Hey, I can’t hear you…get closer! I cried out loud to the blurred shadow. Out came another series of turbid cries of the voice, before I saw a vague face pressed up against it. I could hardly distinguish his nose, let alone other parts of his face.
It was extremely hard to have a conversation. Almost every sentence was to be repeated many times. The interview dragged on like this.
Our time was almost over. Our dialogue was still floating somewhere in the cloud. Finally, the policeman accompanying me saw it was all so unbearable that he suddenly yanked open the door. The noise from inside suddenly rushed out. I gasped a big sigh of relief. Even though there was still an echo I could at last hear the person clearly. I felt so exhausted after 30 minutes of desperately trying to see the person during the whole interview. Of course, I knew the person inside must have been far more anxious than I was. The lawyer he had long waited for had finally come, yet he couldn’t even see what I looked like.
It has been more than a month since I came back from Foshan City, but I just can’t wipe that blurred face and muddy voice from my memory. A colleague laughed at me by saying, “You were not there on a date. What does it matter that you didn’t see the person’s face?”
But yes, we are often forced reluctantly to work under such conditions and people much too often accept it as normal. But has anyone thought about how many wrong verdicts have come about because of such tough conditions? How many have lost their lives unjustly because of these restrictions?
In the detention center, ripping away those plastic boards and replacing them with steel bars would have transformed the way the lawyers meet their clients and would have made the meeting much more productive. Effective communication would be beneficial to the criminal proceedings themselves, but would also show criminal suspects that they are fairly treated. Would the detention center ever think to allow that?
Zhang Yansheng is a criminal defense lawyer who writes for Caixin