FARGO — As a master aesthetician, Annette Rasile has purchased thousands of wooden craft sticks over the years. The sticks, which resemble those used in Popsicles, are used for the waxing services she provides. But in early July, something unusual happened when she opened the box she purchased from Walmart.
“I was surprised,” said Rasile. “I’ve bought so many craft sticks in my life, and this is the first time that there was a folded package of letters inside.”
While she might have initially assumed the papers were instructions from the manufacturer, it became pretty clear that wasn’t the case.
“There was nothing professional looking about it,” she said. “It was five pages long with handwritten Chinese writing from top to bottom.”
She said none of the papers matched. It was like the person who wrote the letters just grabbed whatever scraps of paper were handy.
“It just looks really odd, really odd, like somebody was writing fast and was really trying to put something on paper that they wanted somebody to read,” Rasile said.
The only non-Chinese characters on the page were the initials S.O.S written twice at the top of one page, followed by the words, “in Chinese” as if someone wanted the reader to know the language they were seeing.
Rasile says she knew right away someone was in trouble, but she was unsure what to do about it.
“What do you do with a letter like this? I just wanted it to end up in the right hands, possibly help somebody who needs help,” she said.
Rasile says the first step was trying to figure out exactly what the letter said.
“We actually tried to use an app to decipher it. That was not very helpful because it was only able to translate random words,” she said. “But one of the random words that came up was ‘help.’ ”
Rasile ended up posting the letters on Facebook, asking for translation help. At this point, the two posts she wrote looking for translation help have been shared a total of 50 times. And it worked. A woman who knows Mandarin Chinese was able to give her the gist of what the letter said.
“It's a woman who is saying she's wrongly imprisoned for a crime she didn't commit,” Rasile said. “She talks about family, and it sounded like she was framed for political reasons or for something about relationships.”
The letter indicates that the woman's original sentence was 15 years. It says in jail, her sentence was increased to life without commutation and release. The sentence was increased because she didn’t confess guilt or repent. She wanted to appeal. It seems that her increased sentence was conducted secretly.
Rasile isn’t the first American to receive such a letter. In recent years, letters have been stuffed inside retail packages from Walmart to Saks Fifth Avenue. Most of the time, the letters spell out human rights abuses faced by inmates of Chinese prisons — those inmates are the ones manufacturing and packaging some of the goods shipped to the United States.
Forced labor has been a common practice in Chinese prisons since 1950. Sometimes, American retailers are unaware that prison labor is manufacturing or packaging their goods.
In an investigative report published on Vox, Li Quian, the founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, says American companies can place their orders directly to factories, but those factories can, in turn, transfer orders to prisons without the company’s knowledge.
The letters Americans have received over the past handful of years, which spell out the abuses prison workers face, including long hours with no food or water and getting beaten for not finishing their work, can be written by the inmates themselves or human rights activists trying to raise awareness about the problem.
Rasile says it’s pretty clear her letter was written by an inmate. According to translators, while the prisoner mostly writes about her situation and how she was framed, she does mention the working conditions and mistreatment she’s faced. She says prison guards and other female prisoners beat her until her five front teeth were knocked out and she’s confined all day. “Because today is a moving day, I got the chance to come out of the prison cell. And this will be the only time that I can come out of the cell,” the prisoner writes.
“It seems like a desperate measure to shove something in a box like that and just send it out in the world, like putting a message in a bottle. I suppose that's the only resource she had,” Rasile said.
Rasile says one of her first thoughts upon hearing the woman needed help was to figure out how to give it. According to translators, the prisoner provides guidance based upon who and where the letters are found.
If the person received this letter in China, she wanted them to send it to CPC General Secretary Xi or Chief Prosecutor Zhang, Jun of China Supreme People's Procuratorate. If the person got this letter in a foreign country, she wanted him or her to hand the letter to the ambassador of the Chinese Embassy in that country, and then ask that particular ambassador to take the letter to Xi or Zhang.
Rasile says she’ll be looking into it and is just glad she didn’t just throw the scraps of paper in the garbage.
“I just can't imagine what she risked to do this,” Rasile said. “I'm just praying that it gets in the right hands, even to shed light on it. I feel like it's a big responsibility to help her. I don't know if we can, but I hope so.”