“Sometimes the guards would drag me around by my hair or apply electric batons to my skin for so long, the smell of burning flesh would fill the room,” said Chen Shenchun, 55, who was given a two-year sentence for refusing to give up a petition campaign aimed at recovering unpaid wages from her accounting job at a state-owned factory.
According to former inmates, roughly half of Masanjia’s population is made up of Falun Gong practitioners or members of underground churches, with the rest a smattering of prostitutes, drug addicts and petitioners whose efforts to seek redress for perceived injustices had become an embarrassment for their hometown officials.
All agreed that the worst abuse was directed at Falun Gong members who refused to renounce their faith. In addition to giving the electric shocks, they said, guards would tie their limbs to four beds and gradually kick the beds farther apart. Some inmates would be left that way for days, unfed and lying in their own excrement.
“I still can’t forget the pleas and howling,” said Liu Hua, 51, a petitioner who was imprisoned at Masanjia on three separate occasions. “That place is a living hell.”
Even if they found the work exhausting, many inmates described the time spent in Masanjia’s workshops as a respite from mistreatment or the hours of “re-education classes” that often entailed an endless recitation of camp rules or the singing of patriotic songs while standing in the broiling sun.
Much of the work involved producing clothing for the domestic market or uniforms for the People’s Armed Police, but inmates say they also assembled Christmas wreaths bound for South Korea, coat linings stuffed with duck feathers that were labeled “Made in Italy” and silk flowers that guards insisted would be sold in the US.
“Whenever we were making goods for export, they would say, ‘You better take extra care with these,’” said Jia Yahui, 44, a former inmate who now lives in New York.
Corinna-Barbara Francis, China researcher at Amnesty International, said that given the abundant moneymaking opportunities, abolishing or significantly reforming the system would prove daunting. In addition to the profits earned from the inmate labor, prison employees often solicit bribes for early release, or for better treatment, from the families of those incarcerated.
During labor shortages, inmates say, Masanjia officials simply buy small-time offenders from other cities on a sliding scale that begins at 800 yuan (US$130) for six months of labor. They include people like Zhang Ling, a 25-year-old from the eastern coastal city of Dalian who said she was among a group of 50 young women rounded up by the police in May last year during a crackdown on illegal pyramid sales schemes and sold to Masanjia. While there, she sewed buttons on military uniforms, but was released 10 months early after a brother paid for her release.
Masanjia officials did not respond to faxes and phone calls requesting an interview. Approached one recent afternoon, a half-dozen guards on a cigarette break outside the women’s work camp refused to answer questions. One guard, however, made a point of correcting the way a question was phrased.
“There are no prisoners here,” she said sternly. “They are all students.”
Sears Holdings, the owner of Kmart, declined to make an executive available for an interview. However, in a brief statement, a company spokesman, Howard Riefs, said an internal investigation prompted by the discovery of the letter uncovered no violations of company rules that bar the use of forced labor. He declined to provide the name of the Chinese factory that produced the item, a US$29.99 set of Halloween decorations called “Totally Ghoul” that include plastic spiders, synthetic cobwebs and a “bloody cloth.”