It was 31 years ago that Beijing prisons first started to allow prisoners to take college courses.
On April 16, three inmates in the capital's Yanqing prison took national exams for self-taught students on a variety of subjects at the same time as students around the country, The Beijing News reported on May 1.
The Beijing Municipal Administration of Prisons (BMAP) and the local bureau for adult education started having exams behind bars in 1986. A total of 80 prisoners sat college course exams that first year.
As of 2016, about 29,146 Beijing prisoners have taken college courses while locked up, with 13,743 completing at least one course but just 89 successfully obtaining a degree while still incarcerated, according to The Beijing News.
A BMAP official in charge of the exams told The Beijing News that the most popular subject among prisoners is law, with psychology a close second.
While many male prisoners choose management and accounting, female prisoners are most likely to choose early childhood education and journalism, said the official.
A police officer was quoted as saying by The Beijing News that their academic performance can have an impact on the length of their sentence, with greater success leading to shorter terms.
Any inmate who has never violated prison regulations is able to take college courses, regardless of their gender, age and education background.
However, the BMAP has altered the regulations around these exams in recent years, as some prisoners were trying to game the system simply to get out of prison sooner.
"Some prisoners with higher degrees were taking exams for several colleges or subjects at once," the BMAP official said.
The administration revised its regulations in 2014, stipulating that each inmate can only take exams on one subject every year and can only apply for another course after they complete the one they are working on.
The number of applicants decreased after the revised regulations took effect, The Beijing News said.
"I could have done better if I reviewed the books one more time," said 41-year-old Wang Dongliang, one of the exam-takers in Yanqing prison.
Wang, who has a master's degree, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for breaking commercial competition laws.
"It is not commutation but knowledge that motivates me," Wang said, adding that he is looking forward to starting over with what he has learned after leaving prison.
Zhou Ying, who has been in Yanqing prison for eight years, said that her studies have helped her to keep up with society.
"Although we can't take part in society, at least we will know what has happened when we return," Zhou said.
She added that "the studies help me accept my past, which has finally stopped my parents from worrying about me. They can return to their lives now and that is the thing that brings me the greatest joy."
Similar to Zhou, Xu Ying, who was imprisoned 11 years ago for corruption, said that "abandoning studying means abandoning oneself."
Xu has already obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at the Renmin University of China while serving her sentence. She will collect her certificate in person from the university after she is freed.
She is now studying literature.
Hard road ahead
While the Yanqing prison students are optimistic about their chances of success when they re-enter society, it is not actually clear how smooth their path will be, as relevant data is scarce.
One Nanjing prison claims that 95 percent of its former inmates who received technical qualifications behind bars are now in employment. However the prison did not say what percentage of them are working in fields related to their qualifications, nor did it release job statistics about those who studied academic, rather than technical, subjects.
Likewise, the Global Times was unable to find national statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice on the employment rate of ex-cons generally, let alone specifically those who took college courses.
Some former inmates have complained that they face discrimination both in finding jobs and once they have secured employment.
An article published in the magazine Co-operative Economy & Science in January 2014 said that ex-convicts still face discrimination when looking for a job due to the fact that employers do not trust them.
"Although they signed a contract with us, they do not trust us. And they always look at us with suspicion when bad things occur," an ex-convict was quoted as saying in the article.