Mon, Aug 03, 2009 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Actress-turned-prison counselor finds fulfillment

By Sofia Wu  /  CNA

Former actress Angela Ying talks to a group of inmates during a group counseling session at Taoyuan Prison last Tuesday. Ying has spent the past 15 years counseling, mentoring and helping prison inmates.

PHOTO: CNA

Long past the days when she shone on screen as a popular actress, Angela Ying (應曉薇) remains a brilliant star, albeit on a smaller stage.

Her audience may be smaller than before, but the bonds she has made with her new fans and the fulfillment she gets from her life surpass anything she experienced in her previous career.

For the past 15 years, Ying has dedicated herself to counseling and mentoring prison inmates and helping them become productive citizens upon their return to society through the Honorable New Life Volunteer Task Force she formed with a group of like-minded people in 1995.

She has counseled 300,000 inmates in groups or individually over the years and written them hundreds of thousands of letters of encouragement.

Although the letter writing has left the 45-year-old single mother of two with carpal tunnel syndrome and other physical ailments, she remains undeterred.

“I feel I was born to do this work. I do it with great ease and a sense of mission and commitment,” Ying said in a recent interview. “Little by little I would like to think I’ve had some influence in getting better treatment for the prisoners and instilling in them moral education.”

Her altruism has earned her the nickname “Taiwan’s Prison Angel,” and she now sits on the 25-member board of directors of the Criminal Correctional Association — the only director who has never headed a correctional facility or served as a prison warden.

Ying’s involvement in serving and helping prisoners stemmed from her work with orphans, which has been a regular part of her life since childhood.

She came to realize that many children are “orphaned” because their families break up after their parents are imprisoned.

Ying therefore turned her attention to prison inmates and called the warden of Penghu Prison, offering to speak with the prisoners.

“I remember vividly that I used some stories from Buddhist scripture to inspire the inmates. In the middle of my speech, however, one prisoner stood up and shouted: ‘Didn’t you come to sing?’” she said.

“I felt embarrassed and almost cried, but I composed myself and responded that what I was going to say would be more interesting and pleasing than any song. I then continued my speech,” she said.

Many people had trouble taking Ying seriously in the beginning, seeing her as just another actress looking for cheap publicity, but her tenacious devotion to the cause has proven them wrong.

In the early years, Ying hand-wrote responses to every letter sent to her by inmates.

“I hand-wrote my replies to show my sincerity in the hope of inspiring the inmates to change their ways and become productive members of society after their release,” she said.

After letter writing became difficult because of carpal tunnel syndrome (she gave it up early this year), she used other approaches targeted at specific groups of prisoners.

She has stepped up counseling of individuals serving jail terms of six months or less who could not afford to pay a fine in place of their sentence.

“I try my best to let them know they are not alone and that somebody is concerned about them,” Ying said.

She also sends NT$600 to destitute inmates.

“I believe poverty is the root cause of crime. It is difficult to talk about dignity, about repentance, with someone whose bank account is empty,” she said.

“I want to give impoverished prisoners emotional support. I believe that knowing somebody is willing to help you unconditionally can help melt the icy barriers to the hearts of many prisoners and even inspire violent inmates to overcome their inner demons,” Ying said.

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