Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Prisoners in Chinese Labor Camps Send Pleas for Help in Exported Products

Chinese prisoners have used a novel, if not entirely secure, method of reporting human rights abuses, by stashing handwritten notes in the products they are forced to make inside prison sweatshops.

Accounts of former prisoners held in Chinese labor camps have described long work hours and brutal abuse at the hands of guards. They claimed they suffered sleep deprivation, were chained for weeks at a time and witnessed fellow prisoners committing suicide or dying due to untreated illnesses while working in prison factories to produce goods bound for overseas markets. U.S. citizen Stuart B. Foster, who was incarcerated in China for eight months in 2013, said he was forced to assemble strands of Christmas lights, presumably for export.

In April 2014, the New York news website tracked down the author of a letter found at the bottom of a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag that included the plea, “HELP HELP HELP.”

The message, in blue ink on lined white paper, was reportedly written by a prisoner who claimed he was being unjustly incarcerated and forced to work in a Chinese labor camp more than 7,000 miles away.

“We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory,” the letter stated.

Stephanie Wilson, an Australian woman who lives in New York, found the note – along with a small passport-sized photo of a man in an orange jacket – concealed in the bottom of her shopping bag after buying a pair of rain boots at Saks. [See: PLN, Sept. 2014, p.48].

“I read the letter and I just shook,” said Wilson. “I could not believe what I was reading.”

Using a now-inactive email address included in the letter, DNAinfo tracked down the former prisoner who wrote it.

Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, 34, told the news site during a two-hour phone interview that he had been teaching English in China when he was arrested in May 2011 and charged with fraud, which he said he did not commit. He was first held in a detention center for 10 months awaiting trial, then was convicted and sentenced to three years.

Njong stated he was imprisoned in Qingdao, Shandong Province, and often forced to work 16-hour days in a factory. Sometimes he made paper shopping bags; at other times he assembled electronics or sewed garments.

Each prisoner had to meet a daily production quota and was given a pen and paper to record their productivity. Njong used the pen to write letters in secret, saying he wrote a total of five letters that he hid in shopping bags. “I got under my bed cover and I wrote it so nobody could see that I was writing anything.”

Njong sent the letters hoping someone would let his family in Cameroon know where he was and that he was alive. He was released from the Qingdao prison in December 2013 – with time off for good behavior – and returned home, where he was reunited with his family.

Learning that someone had actually found one of his letters, Njong said, was “the biggest surprise” of his life. “I am just happy,” he added, “that someone heard my cry.”

Njong’s identity was learned less than two years after another letter from a prisoner in a Chinese sweatshop was discovered in a box of Halloween decorations in Portland, Oregon.

Julie Keith found the letter inside a $29.99 Kmart graveyard kit that was gathering dust in storage at her home. Tucked between two Styrofoam headstones, the letter read, in broken English: “Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

According to the letter, the graveyard kit sold by Kmart was made in unit 8, department 2 of the Masanjia Labor Camp in Shenyang, China. [See: PLN, Sept. 2014, p.48].

Eight months later The New York Times tracked down the author of the letter, identified only as a 47-year-old man named Zhang – an adherent of Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritual practice whose followers have long been sent to Chinese re-education camps.

Zhang said the letter was one of 20 he secretly wrote over the course of two years before he was released from Masanjia in 2010. “For a long time, I would fantasize about some of the letters being discovered overseas,” he stated.

For Keith, finding Zhang’s letter was a sobering experience. “When that note popped out and my daughter picked it up, I was skeptical that it was real,” she told the Times. “But then I Googled Masanjia and realized, ‘Whoa, this is not a good place.’”

Wilson, who found Njong’s plea for help in the Saks shopping bag, agreed.

“This has been the biggest eye-opener for me,” she said. “I have never once thought about the people making my shopping bag or other consumable products like the packaging of the food I buy, or the pen I write with or the plastic fork I eat my lunch with.”

Wilson forwarded the letter to the Laogai Research Foundation, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. that was founded to fight human rights abuses in Chinese prisons.

Although exact numbers are unconfirmed, China has an estimated 700 prison facilities that housed between 1.6 and 2.3 million prisoners as of mid-2015, according to the World Prison Brief. The identities and locations of detainees are treated as state secrets, hence tracking down individual prisoners is extremely difficult. In December 2013, Chinese officials announced they had dismantled hundreds of re-education labor camps and released thousands of detainees – including political dissidents. The re-education camps were operated separately from prisons for criminal offenders.

“You can audit a factory. It’s a lot more difficult to audit a prison in China,” noted independent researcher Joshua Rozenzweig, who is based in Hong Kong.

Several U.S. laws, according to Department of Homeland Security senior policy adviser Kenneth Kennedy – including 19 U.S.C. § 1307 – make it illegal for items produced using “convict labor, forced labor and/or indentured labor under penal sanctions” to be imported into the United States. But it’s hard, he said, to prove how complicit a company is in importing such products.

“Was there actual knowledge [of slave, convict or indentured labor]? Or was there knowledge that they avoided knowing or seeing?” Kennedy asked. “All that plays into the investigation.”

A major challenge is unauthorized subcontracting, and determining if only parts of a manufactured item were made by forced labor and where those parts were originally produced. Another challenge is locating witnesses. For example, former prisoners may fear retaliation if Chinese authorities discover they aided U.S. investigators. Only one Chinese company has been convicted of importing goods made by forced prison labor, resulting in a $50,000 fine. [See: PLN, Oct. 2001, p.20].

“The reports are still coming in, and they’re credible. Just because the [Chinese] government says ‘We’re not doing this’ is not enough to not have us move forward,” said Kennedy.

He also noted that a statutory clause – the consumptive demand exemption – was “the Achilles heel of these laws,” because it allows products made using prison labor to be imported into the U.S. if domestic consumption can’t otherwise be met. However, federal authorities closed that loophole after the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act was signed into law in February 2016, prohibiting further imports of prison-made products regardless of domestic supply and demand.

On June 6, 2016, CNN reported that the U.S. had blocked imports from three major Chinese companies – Tangshan Sunfar Silicon Company, Tangshan Sanyou Group and Inner Mongolia Hengzheng Group Baoanzhao Agricultural and Trade – and detained other shipments pending investigations into whether their products were made using “convict, forced and/or indentured labor.” One of the imports was a shipment of Stevia, a low calorie sweetener, being brought into the U.S. by PureCircle, a Malaysia-based firm.

“It is imperative that companies examine their supply chains to understand product sourcing and the labor used to generate their products,” said R. Gil Kerlikowske, Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Ironically, prison labor in the United States is used to produce a variety of goods through prison industries – including products made in partnership with private businesses and sold on the open market through Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) programs. [See, e.g., PLN, July 2016, p.26; March 2010, p.1]. The use of such domestic prison labor, while federal laws prohibit the importation of goods made by prisoners in other countries, is just one example of the blatant hypocrisy that permeates the U.S. criminal justice system.

Sources:, The Oregonian, The New York Times,,,, CNN,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login