It’s the kind of headline we’re used to seeing from Mexico or Brazil, but on Feb. 11, Taiwan’s Kaohsiung prison exploded into violence as inmates took two guards hostage and seized rifles and other weapons, starting a 14-hour stand-off in which the facility was surrounded by police troops. It ended when six of the rebel inmates killed themselves, according to authorities.
The situation showed signs of de-escalating when the warden and head guard agreed to exchange themselves for the guards being held hostage, and talks opened. A gangland leader who had the allegiance of some of the rebel inmates was reportedly called in to the prison to mediate. But officials rejected the prisoners’ request for a getaway car, and the six took their own lives. The prisoners at one point tried to flee the prison, but were met with police gunfire at the gate, and retreated.
The inmates were protesting against their sentences, mistreatment, and what they said had been unfair trials. The leader of the group was apparently Cheng Li-te, a member of the Bamboo Union Gang, one of Taiwan’s most powerful criminal “triads.” In a statement, Cheng complained that Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian, sentenced to 20 years for corruption, was given parole for medical treatment last month. “Chen Shui-bian was an inmate, too, but why was he paroled and described as a political prisoner?” Cheng asked in a statement during the standoff that ended in his death.
Cheng was doing time for murder, but most of the other men in the uprising were convicted on drug charges. Mounting drug convictions in recent years have created a crisis of overcrowding in Taiwan’s prisons—with incarceration up 18% over the past 10 years, now standing at 63,000 prisoners nationwide. President Ma Ying-jeou has called for tougher prison oversight in the wake of the violence, and some lawmakers are even calling for clemency for elderly and ailing prisoners to relieve the pressure on the system. But neither measure would halt the basic trajectory of an overstretched incarceration state.