Inside a Chinese Prison: An American’s Perspective
by Stuart B. Foster
I grew up around jails and prisons in the Upstate of South Carolina. My grandfather was born in jail, with the punch line being his father was the sheriff and had brought his pregnant wife to work. My father was the county judge and the jail next to his office was my playground. My first job was running errands between the courts, lawyers and prisoners. Studying sociology in college, I focused on penology and visited many prisons across my home state. After 15 years of teaching I received a scholarship to work and travel in Asia. My interest in prisons continued as I visited the world’s most notorious jails like the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam and “S-21” in Cambodia. However, throughout my lifetime fascination with jails I never imagined that one day I would be incarcerated under the brutal, authoritarian forced labor camp system of the People’s Republic of China.
Events in April 2013 led me to be imprisoned for eight months in Southern China, where I assembled Christmas lights for up to 10 hours a day. Suffering from a serious head injury after a collision with a bus, and while in a dreamlike state, I took a large sum of money from a colleague at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, where I taught. Following the theft I was immediately hospitalized; the Public Security Bureau (PSB) retrieved me from the hospital for investigation, thus denying me medical treatment.
In the middle of the night the PSB took me to White Cloud District Detention Center in the city of Guangzhou, where I would spend the next 280 days. I was in shock and denial as I was processed and then taken down a long dank corridor to my cell. Opening the corridor door to cell B218 revealed an empty, moldy room the size of a racquetball court. As I was pushed inside I was full of terror. The corridor door closed and a side door to the “inner cell” opened, with native Chinese prisoners motioning me inward to the sleeping and working quarters.
The inner cell was the same size but held 30 prisoners, all sleeping on the concrete floor. There were no blankets or pillows and the room was so crowded that most prisoners slept on their sides with arms draped over each other like embracing couples. Near the back was an older prisoner indicating he was making room for me to lie down. Dazed and confused, I crossed the cell like a cat, careful not to step on the heads, arms or bodies of other prisoners. My concussion and the long day of coercive interrogation had left me exhausted and I lay down to sleep.
In Chinese jails, prisoners begin working on their first day of detention regardless of the circumstances. The right of having a phone call upon arrest is unheard of, and most have no contact with the outside world throughout the entire time they are incarcerated. Many are jailed for months without ever being formally charged, then released without going to trial.
Each day at 6:30 a.m. the cell leader woke everyone by clapping his hands to begin another routine day. Thirty men lined up to brush their teeth while simultaneously using a single hole in the ground as our only toilet. After washing and using the toilet, prisoners arranged themselves in rows sitting cross-legged to chant communist slogans and recite detention regulations. Once the chanting was complete, prisoners would stand for an hour of military-style marching in place. Any who didn’t enthusiastically chant or march briskly received beatings or various other types of punishment.
Each cell was run by a gang who pushed work production through a series of rewards and punishments. While there was one leader, he surrounded himself with what we called “the lieutenants” – forming what we called “the regime.” After work quotas were issued, prisoners would line the wall to assemble Christmas lights all day with two ten-minute breaks for lunch at 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. for dinner. No uniforms were issued, so most prisoners sat in their underwear. Later, in the shower, I noticed many prisoners had bedsores from long hours sitting on the concrete floor.
Due to my mental state, shock and the dim lighting, I was unable to do even the simplest work tasks. As a foreigner and due to the language barrier, the leader gave me a little slack, but for native prisoners anything short of the 6,000-light quota per day would promptly be met with punishment.
On my second day, our cell guard came to check on me. When any prison official visited, prisoners would squat on their heels and lock their hands behind their heads in a non-threatening position we called “the squat-n-lock.” Noting my poor condition, the guard stated he would take me to the infirmary, but it was three days before he returned to our cell. Sometimes we wouldn’t see a guard for 4-5 days, leaving us under the total control of the leader and his “regime.”
During the workday the regime would stroll around shouting “Kuai-dian” (“faster”). Anything from slow work production to a “wrong look” would bring a slap to the head or kick to the ribs. If slow production persisted or a prisoner back-talked, the regime would bring them to the front of the cell for a series of kicks, blows and punches.
The most common punishment was withholding the daily ration of two hand-rolled cigarettes. If that didn’t increase work production, prisoners would have their food rations cut in half. Each meal we were fed rice, turnips and a little pork fat, which tasted horrible but was enough to sustain life. A cut in food rations was devastating and I saw a few prisoners start to look skeletal.
Much harsher punishment awaited prisoners who caused further problems or continued to fail to adjust. Along the floor of the cell were three bull rings. Prisoners who fought or rebelled were shackled and chained to the floor 24/7, from 3 days up to two weeks. When chained to the floor another prisoner would need to bring a bucket to use as a toilet. Also while chained, food and water rations were reduced, leaving some prisoners to wither near death.
The worst punishment was reserved for the rare occasion when a prisoner disrespected a guard. Such prisoners were taken to an empty cell, chained to the floor, flogged with Christmas light cords and left for 2 to 3 days in solitary confinement without food. Usually the threat of no tobacco was enough to bring prisoners in line, and I was aware of only three floggings during the eight months I was incarcerated.
Being an American, I was spared the harshest of punishments. According to an international treaty, the U.S. Consulate is notified within 72 hours of an American being detained. The Consulate contacted my family and was able to quickly hire legal representation for me; once a month, Consulate staff came to check on my health and safety, and facilitated communication with my loved ones. In the words of the Consulate General, their mission was “to ensure I was afforded the rights guaranteed under Chinese law.” Of course they couldn’t make them follow U.S. law. Sadly, for the most part the prison officials didn’t follow their own policies regarding native Chinese prisoners. Thanks to the Consulate’s involvement, the prison adopted a “hands off” approach and I was rarely beaten or physically mistreated.
Other foreigners, such as Africans, sometimes languished for over a year without a court date or outside communication. Likewise, most of the Chinese prisoners had simply disappeared from the outside world without their family knowing if they were dead or alive. Due to the involvement of the U.S. Consulate, I had my first court date within three months and was granted “my right” to a psychiatric evaluation. I was sentenced to time served at my second trial instead of the 3 to 4 years imprisonment recommended by the PBS and the prosecutor. Without the U.S. Consulate, today I would still be assembling Christmas lights for no pay and sleeping on a concrete floor while surviving on rice, turnips and a little pork fat.
Although I was imprisoned in a foreign country, it was the American attention to human rights that helped me survive and receive a more just verdict – even though atrocities exist in U.S. prisons, too. The Chinese prison officials and guards sometimes resented the U.S. monitoring and evaluating their treatment of American prisoners. However, at the same time they agreed the U.S. stance on human rights was correct.
I left America in 2002 for adventure and got much more than I had bargained for. I refuse to feel bitter, however, and choose to look at my time in White Cloud District Detention Center as a learning experience with respect to both American and Chinese penal systems.
Stuart Foster was released from a Chinese prison in December 2013; he provided this account of his experience exclusively for Prison Legal News.
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