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The Tragic Existence of Tengzhou Prison Inmates

November 16, 2011

[Translation by Human Rights in China]

I was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment because I reported on a luxurious office building constructed by the Tengzhou Municipal Government and Party Committee in Shandong Province. Since arriving in the Tengzhou Prison on August 8, 2008, I have personally experienced and witnessed the vile living conditions of prison inmates—so horrendous it makes one’s heart stop.

The Tengzhou Prison of Shandong Province used to be a small local coal mine. However, due to depleted resources and a low coal bed, the mine became difficult to sustain. During the [first] Strike Hard [against crime] campaign in 1983, the operation of the mine was turned over to the prison—this was because prison inmates are a source of cheap labor.

Tengzhou Prison is among the largest in Shandong’s 28 prisons; it holds approximately 4,800 inmates.

After prison officials took over the mine, they were reluctant to invest, and primitive production methods remained in place. All the mining work was done by the inmates—shovel by shovel. The labor was grueling, the environment was harsh, reminiscent of the miserable conditions endured by Chinese laborers who worked in Japanese coal mines in the 1920s.

The first time I went to Mine No. 12702 I saw that, due to the high temperature in the mine shaft, most of the laboring inmates were completely naked. Apart from their eyes and teeth, their bodies were entirely covered in black mud and soot. There was no way to tell who was who. From laboring in these conditions for prolonged periods, where masks and other protective equipment are not provided by the prison, many inmates suffer from severe pneumoconiosis—a lung disease caused by inhaling coal dust over a long period of time—and face likely death. Thirty-year-old Liu Meiqiang, who is more than 1.80 meters (5'9") tall, from Jiaonan, Shandong Province, has worked continuously underground after he arrived. His lungs are filled with coal dust. Since 2008, he has been experiencing tightness in his chest, shortness of breath, and difficulty in breathing. It was difficult for him to breathe even when lying in bed. At every step, he would be covered in sweat. He said that under these conditions, he could only wait for death.

Qiu Sishui has poor eyesight due to an eye disease. In May 2008, while working underground, his right arm was crushed. Other inmates rushed him to the surface but the prison guards refused to let him seek treatment at a hospital. Instead, he was carried to his dormitory. A broken arm is considered a serious injury. If the prison authorities knew about this, they would deduct the prison guards’ salaries and bonuses. To avoid the penalty, the prison guards told Qiu Sishui to write a statement saying that due to his own negligence, he fell down the prison staircase and broke his arm; otherwise, he could forget about going to the hospital to get treatment.

Qiu Sishui couldn’t understand their logic. He obviously broke his arm while working in the mine, how could he write that he broke it in a fall because he wasn’t careful? He stood his ground for a night, but the pain became so unbearable that fellow inmates advised him: “It’s more important to get treatment first.” So he wrote the statement saying he broke it himself. But the treatment came too late, his arm is basically crippled.

On April 3, 2008, while working underground, 26-year-old inmate Li Yang was injured when something fell on his right foot. His entire foot swelled up like a steamed bun—it looked as if it could burst at a slight touch. The following day, he asked the guards for a day off. Without asking how he was injured and how badly it was hurt, the guard, Liu Huanyong, responded coldly: “This injury, did you do it to yourself on purpose? Was it self-inflicted?” Li Yang said: “When I heard this, tears began running down my face. I almost passed out. How could a person say such a thing?”

Rubber boots are necessary to protect coal miners. However, in the Tengzhou Prison, inmates only get one pair a year, and they are poorly made. Every day, many inmates walk 30 to 35 kilometers through mine shafts and climb over slopes and cliffs to get to their worksite. This causes significant wear and tear on their boots, which inevitably fall apart after three or four months. Prison officials turn a blind eye to this situation, and inmates, in order to not work barefoot, are forced to write home asking for money to buy boots. For Zhang Jing, a 41-year-old inmate from Jilin, his boots completely fell apart by the end of March 2009. He had no money to buy new ones. He had no choice but to ask Liu Huanyong, the guard in charge, for help. Liu told him: “Contact your family and tell them to send money.” Zhang Jing said, “This is such dangerous work, and we work so hard in the mine every day for the prison. They don’t even help us with a pair of rubber boots. It’s just too fascist.”

Apart from these appalling stories, I understand that between December 8, 2008 and April 21, 2009, five inmates died in this prison and another attempted suicide.

1. December 8, 2008: Zhang Qing (Block 16), who was sick, starved to death in the prison hospital.

2. Early 2009 (date, name, block number unknown): An inmate died in an accident in the mine shaft. To avoid responsibility, officials in his block said that he died of heart disease.

3. March 2009: Inmate Wang (Block 6) hanged himself inside a storage room.

4. April 2009: Aizizi Tu’erxun (Block 9), a Uyghur from Xinjiang, died from illness, after being bedridden and neglected for three days.

5. April 2009: Sun Sisen (Block 3), unable to bear prison life, attempted suicide by swallowing a set of keys.

6. April 2009: Jin Yingwen (Block 3), a North Korean, died from a failed hemorrhoid surgery.

These are the conditions for inmates in Shandong’s Tengzhou Prison. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg.