Four square meters. That is the size of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) prison cell.
There are walls on each side and only one little window to let in sunlight. On the wall across from the window, there is a small opening with bars where at any time the guards can see what is going on in the cell. In the lower right corner of the wall there is a small hole, like a little rat hole; that’s where the prison food is delivered.
Prison representatives say the cell is 6m2, but Chen only has 4.3m2 because you have to deduct the space for the toilet, the water bucket and various other items. This is the home of the former president in Taipei Prison, and it is a double.
The toilet is not a squat toilet, nor is it a water closet, it is just a hole in the floor.
When Chen gets out of bed, he must squat over the hole to wash his face and brush his teeth.
To take a shower, he has to stand over the hole, one foot on either side, reach for the ladle in the bucket and pour the water over himself. To the left above the hole, there is a 24-hour security camera that records everything he does, even when he takes a shower or uses the toilet. There is no escape.
After deducting the space that is occupied by the latrine and miscellaneous items, the remaining space is shared by two people, which means they only get about 2m2 each.
In a space of just 2m2, Chen has to sleep on the floor, eat squatting on the floor, read sitting on the floor and write his articles lying on the floor. Although there is a thin wooden tiling, the winter cold seeps into the bones and Chen needs a thick quilt to keep warm and get to sleep.
When Chen talks about life in prison, his smile is marked by frustration and bitterness. His forehead and face are dark, lacking the radiance that was so often there in the past. When I ask him why his face is so dark, he says it’s sunburn.
In the past, he was only allowed out for half an hour a day, but after legislators and doctors started to express concern, that was increased to one hour a day, and he now gets as much sun as he can.
As a result of the concern shown by many legislators and physicians both in Taiwan and abroad, one month ago the prison administration finally placed a desk and a chair in the empty cell across from Chen’s cell. For the first time in four years of prison life, he can now sit down to eat his food and to write, although he is only allowed to use the desk for a few hours at a time.
When the time is up, he must return to his “presidential suite.”
Many visitors ask why the prison administration does not let Chen work in the prison factory, as “normal” criminals work there eight hours a day.
However, prison officials say it is because they cannot guarantee it will be safe. Safe for who? Are they afraid that he will organize the other prisoners and start a labor union?
Since Chen cannot work in the factory, with the exception of the one hour he gets to spend outside every day, he spends most of the time squatting on the floor in his 4m2 presidential suite.
At this point, I am filled with sorrow. I am closing my eyes (you should, too) and trying to imagine what it would be like to be locked up in a tiny bathroom with nothing but a toilet and trying to imagine how long I would be able to stand it. Probably not even an hour.
Chen has lived in this space for four years now. It is almost unbelievable that he hasn’t lost his mind yet.