WASHINGTON—Thousands of prisoners in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan are forced to work prolonged shifts in a coalmine for no pay, rarely emerging to see daylight, according to two former inmates.
“What was it like for us in that prison? ...We were really not treated like people. There is no word in Chinese to describe what it was like, the things I saw there,” a former inmate of the Chuannan prison-mine told RFA’s Mandarin service.
“It was really too inhumane. When I tell people about what I went through in there, the suffering, they don’t believe me,” Chen Jinglin told RFA’s Mandarin service.
"When I tell people about what I went through in there, the suffering, they don’t believe me.”
Chen said he was shut in a room of just two meters square for a month’s solitary confinement with inadequate food and clothing during winter.
Other punishments included beatings by guards and other inmates, iron manacles and bed restraints that prevented sleep, and forced injections that induced sluggishness in prisoners, he said.
Chuannan Prison houses an estimated 4,000-5,000 prisoners under China’s system of laogai , or reform through labor.
At least two large sectors of the prison’s population undergo forced labor in the coalmine, digging coal for up to 13 hours a day in a desperate effort to meet heavy production quotas for no wages.
“Every day we were digging for coal. Each person has to dig 50 tonnes of coal. There’s a quota that you have to reach,” Chen told RFA.
"Each person has to dig 50 tonnes of coal. There’s a quota that you have to reach."
“A lot of people tried to kill themselves because of it... Many of them jumped off tall buildings, because they couldn’t take the work that was expected of them in the prison. It was exhausting,” he said.
Another former Chuannan inmate, Su Wanhua, said inmates were beaten if they failed to make their monthly coal quota. “We had to work from morning to night. When the dayshift is over, it’s already dark, so we never saw the sunlight.”
“We wouldn’t get back until the evening or midnight. We have to start really early. For food, they send steamed buns down for us to eat. We spend about 12-13 hours underground,” said Su, who served a nine-year jail term for robbery—a total sum of 200 yuan (U.S.$24)
He said poor safety regulation at the mine led to frequent fatal accidents. “Often the roof of the tunnel would collapse, and people would be buried and killed underneath. And sometimes large pieces of rock can fall from the roof of the tunnel and kill people,” he said.
Officials at the Chuannan mine admitted that accidents had taken place in the past.
“It’s hard to avoid industrial accidents when you’re working in a mine,” an employee in the mine office who declined to be identified told RFA. “And it’s impossible to have no accidents at all.”
Another official surnamed Luo said conditions in the mine, however, were above national standards for prison labor.
"It was 100 times worse than we could ever have imagined. A lot of people were twisted beyond recognition..."
Article 41 of the Chinese Criminal Code states that anyone sentenced for a crime and able to work “shall undergo reform through labor.”
The U.S.-based Laogai Research Foundation estimates that there are at least 1,100 reform through labor institutions in China, with up to 6.8 million inmates.
But the employee said that while working conditions had improved for prison inmates, who now worked eight-hour shifts on rotation, much of the profit from the mine was creamed off by officials in the form of bonuses and subsidized housing, while ordinary employees earned just 400 yuan (U.S.$48) a month.
“All the money we make in the coalmine is all taken away by officials,” the employee said. “We, the ordinary employees, haven’t seen a penny. We have a problem with it, but we don’t dare complain. If we talk to our bosses, they would tell us to take redundancy.”
China’s officially stated policy is that reform through labor is intended to encourage convicted criminals to take an interest in work and avoid falling into moral decline during their time in detention.
But Chen said the laogai system had left him full of contempt for China’s government.
“I would have hoped that the government would find a way of dealing with criminals to change them so they no longer want to commit crime—not using violence and other means to use us as unpaid labor to boost their own income,” he told RFA.
“I am deeply dissatisfied with the way that the Chinese Communist Party manages the system. I have no respect for them, to tell you the truth,” Chen, the former inmate, said.
He said his fellow prisoners were changed for the worse by their experiences in the prison system.
“There weren’t really a lot of hardened criminals in there. Some of us had committed the occasional crime, or acted as headstrong youngsters, without premeditation. A lot of us really wanted a fresh start, to learn a better way of being human.”
“We never thought that reform through labor would be like this, really we didn’t. It was 100 times worse than we could ever have imagined. A lot of people were twisted beyond recognition by this experience,” Chen said.