On February 11 Taiwan‘s society was shocked by the events that unfolded in Kaohsiung prison, where 6 inmates rebelled and took staff members hostage. This was the first prison riot in Taiwan’s history. This drama highlighted not only Taiwan’s need to reform its prison management system, but also the existence of a grey zone between legality and criminal syndicates.

At about 16:30 local time Zheng Lide (鄭立德), a leader of the Bamboo Gang (竹聯幫), a notorious Taiwanese triad, and 5 other prisoners faked an illness and asked for medical treatment. The 6 men took hostage the three guards who had come to help them. They forced the staff to take them to the prison armoury, where they stole four 65K2 rifles with 177 bullets and 6 guns with 46 bullets.

The prison’s head guard, Wang Shicang (王世倉), and the prison warden, Chen Shizhi (陳世志), asked to be taken hostage in exchange for the three guards, to which the prisoners agreed.

The inmates entered into negotiations with the authorities and claimed that they had rioted because of what they considered an unfair treatment on the part of the state. They demanded that a car be delivered to them and that they be allowed to leave the prison. However, the police refused to accept their request.

The police asked the help of former lawmaker Li Fangzong (李榮宗) and of the prisoners’ family members.

According to reports, the six men had committed serious crimes and were all serving prison sentences exceeding 20 years. Bamboo Gang leader Zheng Lide (鄭立德) had been arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 28 years in prison for murder, possession of weapons and other crimes; Qin Yiming (秦義明) was serving a 46 years’ prison term for banditry; Wei Liangxian (魏良顯) had been sentenced to 34 years and 3 months in prison for drug trafficking; Huang Xiansheng (黃顯勝) had been sentenced to 34 years and 2 months in prison for drug trafficking; Huang Ziyan (黃子晏) had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for drug trafficking and robbery; Jin Zhusheng (靳竹生) was serving a life term for robbery.

The negotiations between the prisoners and the police lasted for several hours. At around 23:00 Zheng Lide issued five demands and asked that they be read in front of media reporters by Wu Xianzhang (吳憲璋), the director of the Agency of Corrections of the Ministry of Justice.

Wu Xianzhang appeared in front of the cameras before midnight and read the letter written by Zheng Lide in which he explained the reasons for the rebellion. He accused the authorities of discriminating against prisoners, citing former president Chen Shuibian as an example. In 2009 Chen had been found guilty of corruption and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he was released on medical parole on January 5, 2015. “Chen Shuibian was released from prison for medical treatment thanks to his faked illness, but other prison inmates who have more serious illnesses cannot?” wrote Zheng Lide. “Why? It’s because we are criminals, it serves us right to die. Is Chen Shuibian not a criminal, as well? Since he was released, everyone should be treated the same way.”

Zheng protested against the fact that he and the other 5 prisoners had been denied the right to be paroled and that their wages were too low.  “Because of the three-strikes regulations we cannot even ask for parole. It is you officials who force us to rebel. We work for a month and we only get 200 Taiwan dollars (around US$6.30), it’s not even enough to buy clothes, and we must ask our families to support us. We have lost even our dignity.”

He denied having committed the crime of which he had been found guilty. “I have been convicted of murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison, but I have killed nobody and I am not resigned. I am just the tip of the iceberg. There are many inmates in the same situation as me. Who will come here and talk with us?”

Zheng appealed directly to president Ma Yingjiu (Ma Ying-jeou) for help. “Ma Yingjiu,” he wrote, “you are not a very good president, but you were a good Minister of Justice. If you still have power please come and save us. Thank you.”

In his last point, Zheng asked the authorities to change the three-strikes laws. “Why don’t you change the proposed three-strikes law and give people a little hope? Why can people who have committed less serious crimes have their sentence shortened, while those who have committed more serious crimes cannot? If you allow the prison terms to be reduced, why do you have to discriminate? Aren’t we all criminals?”

In the course of the evening Zhang Anle (張安樂) arrived at the prison to help Zheng Lide. Zhang Anle, known as the “White Wolf”, was himself a leader of the Bamboo Gang and was a personal friend of Zheng’s. Zhang wanted to go inside the prison and talk to him, but the police did not consent. Zhang grew angry and had a row in front of the cameras with Lai Zhenrong (賴振榮), the deputy warden. Then Zhang Anle telephoned Zheng Lide and warned him. “The police will storm the prison, be careful,” he said.

During the phone call Zheng Lide said that he wanted Zhang to bring them 6 bottles of rice wine and 2 bottles of Gaoliang. After finishing their drink, he added, the 6 men would come out with Zhang and surrender. But the police refused to let Zhang meet the inmates. Zheng proposed that the police could give them the wine and the liquor, and announced that after drinking it, the 6 men would commit suicide. If the police did not deliver them what they wanted by 02:00, he threatened, all of the 8 men would die.

Zhang Anle is a highly controversial figure. He joined the Bamboo Gang in 1964 and soon became known as the “brain” of the syndicate. In 1985 he was arrested in the US for drug trafficking and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He returned to Taiwan in 1995. The following year the government launched a major crackdown on organised crime and Zhang fled to China. There, he seems to have established ties with the Communist Party and to have become a supporter of Beijing’s pro-unification policies with Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” model. In an interview with the Global Times, China’s Communist newspaper, he openly declared that he wanted to nurture a pro-Communist electorate in Taiwan.

In June 2013, Zhang returned to Taiwan and founded the Party for the Promotion of Chinese Unification. Despite his criminal past, he continues unhindered his political activities and has often appeared on Taiwanese TV shows.

Read: Zhang Anle, the Sunflower Movement and the China-Taiwan Issue

At 03:20, after having drunk their wine and liquor, the inmates released one of the hostages, head guard Wang Shicang.

Several minutes later shots were heard. The police were alarmed, not knowing what was happening inside the prison and whether someone had been killed. The police soon realised that the shots were aimed at drones sent by some media reporters to capture footage of the events inside the prison. Zheng Lide had become nervous and had tried to stop them. The deployment of drones and the overly sensationalist live reports of some Taiwanese media were widely criticised. The police confiscated the drones and asked the media not to get too close to the building.

At 4:44 shots were heard again, yet this time the convicts were firing at the police. Having realised that their demands would not be met, they apparently tried to escape, but the police fired back and they returned inside the prison. Silence fell.

At around 5:00, the collective suicide which had been announced earlier began. Four prisoners killed themselves. The remaining two, including Zheng Lide, examined the bodies of their fellow inmates to make sure they were dead. At around 5:30, Zheng and the other prisoner committed suicide, too. The police watched through the security cameras as the 6 men took their own lives.

The following day, a Taiwanese TV station called Zhang Anle and interviewed him live. TV host Wang Jiemin (汪潔民) asked Zhang about the events of the previous night. Zhang stated that Zheng Lide had asked him to bring him a few bottles of wine and liquor and that he would allow the hostage to leave the prison together with Zhang. But the police did not agree with this proposal, whereupon Zhang became enraged and said to the police, “You don’t even care about the life of one of your colleagues!”, referring to the hostage. Zhang said he believed that the police rejected the offer because they wanted to “save face”. If Zhang had sorted things out, the police would have been put to shame.

Journalist Wu Guodong (吳國棟), replying to Zhang Anle’s assertions, pointed out that the authorities were in charge of the matter and that it was not for Zhang to take over the functions that pertain to the state. “I ask you,” responded Zhang Anle irritated, “does the Taiwanese state deserve to be trusted? You already know the answer.” At this point the conversation became heated. “Because Taiwan’s system is unjust,” he continued, “it’s people like you who trample on the public authority. I don’t want to quarrel with you. Don’t talk so much.” When a lawmaker of the Democratic Progressive Party was about to ask him another question, Zhang Anle hung up.

In the wake of the hostage drama, president Ma Yingjiu said that Taiwan’s prison management system had loopholes that needed to be addressed quickly. He instructed the Minister of Justice to release a report by Friday and prepare a programme of reform for immediate implementation.

As of 2014 Taiwan’s prison population was over 64,000, but the official capacity of the prison system is only less than 55,000.  A 2011 BBC report revealed that overcrowding had become a serious problem in Taiwanese prisons. Inmates “often housed 10 to 12 to a cell, sleeping on floor mattresses, with no air conditioning.” Moreover, many people in Taiwan do not want prisoners to be treated too leniently, but want them to be punished and understand the suffering they have caused to the families of their victims. For this reason, Taiwan’s prison system has not paid much attention to reforming the convicts but has focused mostly on punishing them .