‘Custody and Education’ for China’s Sex Workers

After Beijing announced its decision to reform the re-education through labor system (RTL)—a controversial form of extra-judicial detention that has been in effect since 1957—media commentators noted that many former labor camps have been renamed “drug rehabilitation centers” while continuing to operate as they had previously. Earlier this week, Amnesty International released a report warning that in absence of RTL camps, other forms of detention will increasingly be used to incarcerate inmates without trial. The Guardian reports on one such type of institution: China’s lesser-known “custody and education” camps—a detention system reserved for sex workers who are required to pay for their own incarceration:

Thousands of people are still thought to be held in a parallel system known as “custody and education”, overseen by public security officials, not judges. Unlike prisoners, or RTL inmates, the detainees must pay living costs and take compulsory tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

“The original intention … was to penalise unlawful behaviour that did not reach the level of a criminal offence but, in fact, it has become a penalty even harsher than criminal penalties,” warns a new report from Asia Catalyst (pdf), a health and human rights group which wants the system abolished. Few have even heard of it, not least because stigma and the fear of retaliation makes former detainees reluctant to discuss it.

[...] Estimates suggest China has between two and six million sex workers. Though often tolerated, prostitution is illegal and there are periodic crackdowns. Not all detentions lead to custody and education; police in some areas prefer fines or other measures. There is little official information on the system and the ministry of public security did not respond to calls or faxed queries.

But Asia Catalyst said 28,000 were held in 2002. Although fewer are detained now, the number could rise again because sex workers were also sent to RTL camps. [...] [Source]