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A sense of the ordinary from behind bars

By Cao Yin  (China Daily)

08:24, March 19, 2013

A group of inmates on the way to their cells after work in Beijing Women's Prison on March 5. PHOTOS BY CUI MENG / CHINA DAILY

Beijing Women's Prison offers its inmates shopping, counseling

Zhang Liying's finger traced the list of products on the screen in front of her ― snacks, orange juice, makeup, toothpaste, shampoo, soap.

"Just three steps and I can find whatever I want to buy," she said as she scrolled through the items on the website, like a housewife browsing for online bargains.

But Zhang isn't a housewife. She is an inmate at Beijing Women's Prison.

The touch-screen display is connected to an intranet, not the Web, and is used by inmates to buy daily necessities and the occasional treat.

"It's very easy," said Zhang, a short, thin woman, wearing a blue uniform with white stripes on the shoulders. "And there is a lot of choice."

Inmates can spend up to 300 yuan ($48) on products once a month ― the amount is higher for the elderly or infirm. Purchases are made with money the women earn through prison work or good behavior.

The system works like Taobao, China's popular online marketplace, but the products come from the commissary instead of various vendors.

"When new inmates arrive, they receive three months of orientation, including training in how to operate the technology," said Li Xiaona, the correction officer in charge of Zhang's cellblock. "Younger and older women seem to like it.

"After all," she said, "women in prison also need to enjoy the feeling of shopping. It's in a woman's nature".

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