A program initiated by the Ministry of Justice seven years ago has helped equip prisoners with skills they can use when they are free to earn a living themselves.
In an effort to improve the public image of prisons, the ministry launched a program called “Each Prison With Its Own Specialty” in 2006 to get these institutions to produce unique products or handicrafts.
Yu Shu-hua (于淑華), a deputy warden at Taoyuan Women’s Prison, said her prison opted to make confectionery.
The confectionery is a specialty product of Longtan Township (龍潭). The prison’s version is made with walnuts to distinguish them from the sweet’s traditional peanut flavor.
The inmates chosen to make the confectioneries were those who had exhibited good behavior, had relatively long sentences and were willing to participate, Yu said, adding that the project was named the “Taoni Workshop” (淘妮藝坊), a name derived from the phrase taoqi nuzi (淘氣女子), meaning mischievous girls.
Yu said the prison asked the owner of a store in the Old Street area of New Taipei City’s (新北市) Tamsui District (淡水) to teach the inmates how to make the treats.
The owner accepted and closed his shop temporarily to travel between Tamsui and Taoyuan each day to teach the inmates how to select walnuts, make caramelized malt sugar, and to assemble and cut the sweets.
After one year, the prisoners in the workshop were all able to make the treats themselves, Yu said.
The sweet is hugely popular because it is not overly sweet or sticky, and has a unique flavor created by the walnuts and a type of processed jujube fruit called nanzao (南棗), as opposed to dried jujube (紅棗).
Each step of the production process is done by hand and no artificial ingredients or additives are used in the sweet, Yu said.
The project aims to teach inmates who do not have any marketable, legal skills something that they can use to rebuild their lives after serving time, Yu said.
She added that the prison did not take any of the nearly NT$4 million (US$135,600) in profits earned by the confectionery workshop.
After deducting some fees the inmates needed to pay for victims’ compensation, as well as material and overhead costs for making the sweets, the rest of the money is distributed among the inmates as their income, Yu said.
The prison initially sold the confectionery to government agencies or other prisons administered by the ministry, but after the public had a taste of the treats, they became very popular, and the prison now makes about 8,000kg of confections each year, she said.
Former inmates who had participated in the project also praised it, saying that although they are not able to mass-produce the treats after being released, the skills they acquired at the workshop have helped them get jobs or earn supplementary income.
One of the former prisoners, nicknamed Hsiao Chi (小琦), said that it was only after she went to jail that she discovered she did not have any skills.
Hsiao Chi said that at first she had been impatient with the program, but after seeing that she was able to produce the sweet on her own, she decided to start a business using what she had learned when she left the prison.
Hsiao Chi is currently teaching others how to make the treats.