Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), now identified in prison by his personal identification number, 1020, might be looking at 17 years in jail, although it could be whittled down to just 11 years behind bars. There is also the slim possibility of a presidential pardon somewhere down the road by a future Democratic Progressive Party president, perhaps as early as 2012.
For now, contemplating his fate, Chen sits in a cell in Taoyuan and is settling into his jail routine. There’s roll call each day and he’ll have to answer the guards when they ask him his name and ID number. At least three times a week, there will be exercise outside in a guarded yard with fellow inmates, one surmises, and a good soak or shower in a prison washroom twice a week, too.
Other than that, he will be a prisoner of his own thoughts in his own cell, and there won’t be any glimpses of sunrises or sunsets. Food will come in through a metal slot in his cell three times a day. Good solid food, nutritious and designed to keep his weight steady and his health, well, healthy.
Chen’s 1.2 ping (3.96m2) cell will afford the former president time to read, write and think. Like a monk in a Buddhist monastery, Chen will have a lot of down time for deep, quiet contemplation, and he will undoubtedly spend most of his days writing his memoirs and penning commentaries and broadsides about politics and history.
There might be a book in a year published by his supporters and eventually there might be enough to fill an entire bookshelf.
Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) has said Chen’s imprisonment was a tragedy for him, his family and Taiwan’s democracy.
It is. However, the former president, from news reports and published photographs, seems calm and reflective behind bars, and since it appears he has nerves of steel and a strong, nimble mind, he will probably come out of jail more or less the same man he is today.
He will not be broken. He will grow in jail. He will blossom and sprout new wings. He will write his way out from the confining walls of his cell and fly free as a bird in the wind. His personality and his instincts will carry him through.
Perhaps the most embarrassing day — and moment — in Chen’s life was on Friday when he was transferred from the Taipei Detention Center to his new “home” in Taoyuan, where, like all incoming inmates, he had to go through a full-body search, completely naked.
Standing before several prison guards and officials, Chen was likely forced to stand up straight and bare himself to machines and men inside a walled-up fortress that is not the ship of state he once captained, but a mighty reminder that personal fortunes rise and fall just like the long ocean swells of the Pacific.
Naked, Chen knew he had hit rock bottom, but he also knows that he will be free one day, and that his life will go on, inexorably, towards the final curtain.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer in Taiwan.