Verifying footage of a Tibetan Prison with geolocation and OSINT
This article explains how the Tibet Research Project was able to verify footage and imagery of a prison in Tibet and clarify a mixture of information online. This location is an interesting one because it is relatively well-documented, however, the information was spread across many sources and some claims were not easily verified until the data was consolidated.
Drapchi Prison — Overview
Coordinates: 29.67917605, 91.13947266
Perimeter: 1,313.66 m
Area: 73.464.89 m2
Officially known as Tibet Autonomous Region Prison (TAR Prison) number 1, Drapchi is named after its location and was originally a military garrison until it was converted into a prison after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising.
It is roughly one mile from the city centre and is the main prison for judicially sentenced prisoners in Tibet. It was the primary place for the detention of political prisoners before 2005 when the newer and modernised Chushur (Chinese: Qushui) Prison was built.
It also possibly goes by the name Delapuxie prison, which has been listed as a separate prison online. TCHRD was able to confirm that they are the same location after our researchers contacted them.
Drapchi Prison used to be the only official prison in Tibet but, following the 1994 law change, former laogais were rebranded, and locations such as Powo Tramo were also referred to as prisons.
The prison is notorious for the deaths of at least nine prisoners following beatings in 1998, who protested peacefully on the 1st and 4th May, during the European Union Troika ambassadors’ visit. The previous year also saw the beatings and extension of sentences for three prisoners who protested during a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visit. On October 30th, 1997, it was reported that Drapchi Prison had 968 inmates, including around 200 women, with 726 (75%) of them being ethnic Tibetans.
Open source research found a Chinese forum that claimed that this prison is the only women’s prison in Tibet. This matches information from Human Rights Watch (HRW), which suggests it may be the only official location for women prisoners in Tibet, though this information is dated. Additional analysis of a documentary featuring the prison showed that women were indeed detained at this facility.
That said, there is ample evidence that Drapchi is not solely a women’s prison. Footage and images of male prisoners have also been identified.
Consolidating Open Source Information
The first stage of investigating Drapchi was obtaining all sources which held information on the prison, including location and defining features. This information was key for several reasons. Firstly, Tibetan rights groups will often name locations based on their traditional Tibetan name, rather than the names used by Chinese officials.
This is in direct opposition to the occupation of the region — Tibetan groups regard using Chinese names as legitimising China’s claim.
To obtain a full overview, it is important to assess sources from all sides, which includes searching with both names. In this case, we searched for “Drapchi Prison” and the official Chinese designation, “Tibet Autonomous Region Prison (TAR Prison) number 1”.
Many of the details were from web sources that were not deemed trustworthy, however, it is likely that some of the information would be useful when verified.
Due to the topic being sparsely researched, several points of conflicting information arose from various sources.
This included claims that certain images were of Drapchi yet were actually at different locations.
When processing the data you have obtained in the collection stage, it is important to scrutinise details and legitimacy. Had this stage not occurred, information about the location would have been littered with incorrect info.
One of the sources being used was displaying images claiming to be of Drapchi. This was debunked due to the geolocation process which revealed the images were of a nearby prison that had been previously identified.
One of the best sources of location information is video footage. This can be used to great effect due to normal filming procedures such as panning.
Panning a camera not only offers a frame-by-frame overview of the location, it can also be stitched together to form a panorama.
A video titled “Tibet Prison 西藏监狱” premiered on YouTube on December 10th 2019, and was allegedly a Chinese documentary on Drapchi Prison.
It was uploaded by VideoChinaTV and is a 56-minute overview of the prison. Analysis of the video became a priority as it offered a unique insight into the detention in Tibet.
The documentary was deemed a heavily biased source. Information obtained was limited to structural identification of the prison and verification of the location rather than the analysis of inmates’ well-being.
This was conducted using video editing software to extract important frames that showed the prison structures or easily identifiable features which could be cross-referenced with satellite imagery and online images.
All the frames that were analysed are available on the Tibet Research Project’s website. The findings confirmed the footage showed Drapchi Prison before the RTL system was abolished as some of the footage was as old as 2004, based on the chronolocation demonstrated below.
One of the most significant indicators that the documentary used older footage was an image in an article that appeared to match one of the shots.
The image depicts a prison band rehearsing in a room. Analysis suggests that some of the footage could be as old as 2004 or even earlier.
The room layout is the same, and the semi-open cardboard box on the wooden locked box matches. It is worth noting that the window sill appears to have been tidied slightly for the photograph in the article.
Recent change analysis
Using Sentinel Hub’s EO Browser, it was possible to monitor for any changes in the past five years to check for expansion or demolishing. From the resolution available, it appears little has changed other than the open ground in the top right of the prison.
Looking back further, using Google Earth Pro’s timelapse feature shows there was a significant change to the prison in 2014. Here you can see the vegetable gardens being removed over time. In the first image, they appear in long greenhouses, which match those seen in the documentary.
These greenhouses have since been removed permanently and have not shown up in imagery since.
This could indicate a change to the operation of the prison or changes to policies. Many Chinese prisons are known to have needed to grow their own food to supplement poor financial backing from the government.
At the end of 2013, the Re-education-Through-Labour (RTL) programme of prisons was supposedly abolished. While there is some latency to the removal of the greenhouses, this may be a direct result of that policy change.
If it is, it could suggest that Drapchi has conformed to the changes made nationwide to abolish RTL. The evidence is not strong enough to be conclusive, however — nor does it vindicate the location of other human rights issues.
As confirmation that the prison is still in use, a high-resolution satellite image can be used to identify people in the detention areas. The latest imagery from Google Earth in 2021 shows what appears to be prisoners still confined to this prison so we can conclude that it is still active as of the image date.