Although he was released from Masanjia in 2010, Zhang, the man who said he wrote the letter, has vivid memories of producing the plastic foam headstones, which were made to look old by painting them with a sponge.
“It was an especially difficult task,” he said. “If the results were not to the liking of the guards, they would make us do them again.”
He estimated that inmates produced at least 1,000 headstones during the year he worked on them.
Zhang’s letter-writing subterfuge was complicated and risky. Barred from having pens and paper, Zhang said, he stole a set from a desk one day while cleaning a prison office. He worked while his cellmates slept, he said, taking care not to wake those inmates — often drug addicts or convicted thieves — whose job it was to keep the others in line. He would roll up the letter and hide it inside the hollow steel bars of his bunk bed, he said.
There it would remain, sometimes for weeks, until a product designated for export was ready for packing.
“Too early and it could fall out; too late and there would be no way to get it inside the box,” said Zhang, a technology professional who studied English in college.
His account of life in the camp matched those of other inmates who said they produced the same Halloween-themed items.
In December, Keith, the woman who bought the product in 2011 but did not open it until the following year, sent the letter she found to the federal agency of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which said it would look into the matter. An agency spokesman, citing protocol, said that he could not confirm whether an investigation was under way but that such cases generally took a long time to pursue.
For Keith, a manager at Goodwill Industries, the experience has been sobering. She said she previously knew little about China, except that most of her household goods were made there.
“When that note popped out and my daughter picked it up, I was skeptical that it was real,” she said. “But then I Googled Masanjia and realized, ‘Whoa, this is not a good place.’”