Taobao University Trains Convicts in E-Commerce

When Su Su walked into Zhejiang Province’s largest prison earlier this month, the last thing she expected to see was a well-lit room with over 30 well-mannered prisoners sitting at desks, eagerly waiting to soak up the presentation she had prepared.

“I was so nervous that I didn’t sleep a wink the night before,” said the Taobao University instructor who was invited to teach a class on e-commerce at the Qiao Si Prison on Dec. 11 as part of the Alibaba’s longstanding commitment to community service.

Established in 2009, Taobao University—named after Alibaba’s premier consumer-to-consumer (C2C) retail platform—is the education arm of the Hangzhou-based tech giant. Led by a team of industry’s top players and e-commerce specialists, the University aims to offer people worldwide practical insights and useful know-how to help them start up or broaden their online business.

During the two-hour session, Su Su, who is also a vendor on Taobao, spoke to the class of inmates about her own struggles and successes of opening a shop on the platform from scratch as well as real-life case studies from her own encounters with customers. According to the prison, all of the inmates who attended the class are well-educated and most of them had white-collar jobs prior to their sentence.

“There are definitely many talented individuals inside here,” said Su Su, recalling a particular bespectacled prisoner who was able to quickly resolve some technical issues with the audio-visual system in the classroom that day.

As one of the few correctional facilities in China that has a pre-release reintegration program, Qiao Si Prison offers various courses such as massage therapy, auto repair, tailoring, and tea cultivation to help prisoners to have an as-smooth-as-possible transition back to society upon release.

However, even with a marketable skill, many former ex-convicts still have a hard time landing a job because of their prior record, making e-commerce  be a good way for them to get a second chance in life, said a representative from prison.

As part of the course, prisoners learn the skills needed to run a successful cyberstore, such as how to deal with customers, what equipment they need, and how to make sure the merchandise is attractive to buyers.

According to the World Prison Brief under the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, China’s current prison population is around 1.6 million people, number two to the United States, which has the largest prison population in the world with 2.3 million people incarcerated.