Inmates in Chinese prisons are reportedly being forced to make Christmas lights and decorations that are exported around the world.
One such prison is Baiyun District Detention Center on the outskirts of Guangzhou. Like many other Chinese detention centers, it houses everyone from petty criminals to convicted murderers, and even those who are arbitrarily detained for “civil disobedience.”
Stuart Foster, a middle-aged sociology professor from South Carolina, is believed to be the only Westerner who has been subjected to forced labor in the Chinese prison system. Labelled as prisoner 13H1741, Foster spent nine months inside the Baiyun Detention Center.
The Independent reports:
“You have nothing, no chairs or beds, just a concrete floor to sleep on,” says Foster. “Each day, they clap at 7am to wake you up, and then you sit in a line and chant communist slogans – ‘Make the motherland strong’, ‘Hail to the party’ – then you stand up, and do marching, and then the work comes. They come and drop fairy light bulbs, receptacles, and wires at your feet, and that was your job for the day for the next 10 hours.”
Foster explains that these systems typically function through a combination of bribery and violence. Cells are run by particularly hardened inmates, known as “bosses” who are bribed with small rewards by the prison guards to ensure that each cell produces a certain quota, usually in the tens of thousands of products per day.
Foster recalls that at times whippings were so commonplace that the cell floor would be stained with the blood of inmates. “They whipped people with the Christmas light cords,” he remembers. “I don’t want to ruin people’s Christmas, but if you pick up a fairy light cord, chances are it could have been used to beat someone.”
Foster says he remembers how the guards would express their delight that many of the retail giants purchasing the goods had no idea how they were made.
“I got to know one of them quite well, and he would often brag about how he was dealing with Americans,” Foster said. “He said to me a few times, ‘I think America would be angry, if they knew these were made in prisons.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, they would.’”
Part of the reason why it has been difficult for major Western brands to detect if goods were made by prisoners is because these prisons often operate like businesses. Some prisons have their own sales teams who pitch to factories across China.
Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese civil rights activist, explains that this is due to the fact that the Chinese government deliberately withholds funding for prisons in an effort to make them self-sustaining, leading them to use prison labor as a means of generating revenue.
“When you look at China’s annual budget, what the party puts out as its GDP, it’ll list a certain amount for the prison system, but in reality what the prisons will actually get is much lower number,” said Guangcheng.
“And that difference is left for them to cover. So prisons are left with having to find funds from other avenues.”