BREMEN, Ind. (AP) — When Christopher Allison woke up in a Chinese detention center Friday morning, the 15th day of his captivity, he had already lost hope that he’d be released after his 14-day sentence.
So he steeled himself for another day of misery. Another day of wearing the same awful prison outfit, too short, worn-Velcro fastening not working, no underwear and no shower or change of clothes. Another day of no real distractions and very little exercise. Another day of being forced to sit on the same wooden platform for 15 1/2 hours at a time, until he’d be allowed to sleep or nap on the same platform in a noisy, crowded cell with the lights on. Another day of very little water, and food so bad he eventually began to turn it down.
When Thursday came and went, the last day of what was supposed to be a 14-day sentence right before the Chinese holiday shutdown began, “I just lost all hope,” Christopher told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1vrIZNo ), “and knew I was going to be there another two weeks at least.”
But instead, on Friday, the young man learned he was being flown home that day.
He hadn’t counted on his mother, Monica, calling a newspaper reporter who would call a senator’s office, or calling on so many people back home to pray for his safety and his release.
Christopher spent the last two years working in a school that taught Chinese students English after school and also acted as a sort of after-school program for parents. He said the Americans who worked at the school had arranged their visas through a company that sponsored foreigners.
When Chinese police arrived at the school that Thursday morning, Sept. 11 — the day before Christopher’s 28th birthday — they asked to see the workers’ paperwork. They then took them to the police station, where they remained into the wee hours of the next day before being driven to a detention center.
They were eventually told the work permit with the visa, which Christopher said he didn’t even realize existed or was needed, listed the visa company as their employer, instead of the school.
“On my end, I did everything I was told, paid everything I was supposed to, and, yep,” Christopher said while sitting in his parents’ home Monday, “my crime was, maybe you could say ignorance. But when it comes down to it, I was just lied to.”
When Christopher and the other arrested worker, also an American, were taken to the detention center about 3 a.m., they were separated into small rooms with hot lamps, where they were surrounded by tough police officials and pressed to sign a document, much like a scene from a movie.
“It was super-thuggish,” he said. “The police officers surrounded me, knuckles cracking.”
They were shown a video that was repeated every day describing how things would work there, including time for regular exercise, activities and reading. Those things never happened.
The two workers were separated, only seeing each other during the 10 minutes of outside time every four or five days when they merely walked in a circle, he said, calling it “my best time” because he could then speak with his friend.
But although the other prisoners they saw were given underwear, the two Americans were not. And Christopher was handed a worn women’s uniform, which he says hit him mid-thigh and did not fasten on top.
This fit with the lack of privacy that accompanied the surveilled and Plexiglas-surrounded little room that held the hose for showering and the “squatty potty” that was the hole in the ground where bodily functions were attended to while one stood.
During Christopher’s time in the 10-foot-by-30-foot room with eight wooden platforms off the floor to serve as beds, anywhere from 12 to 14 men were crowded inside.
Most were Chinese citizens who came in for various crimes knowing what their sentence was and leaving on time. But foreigners, he said, never knew how long they’d be there. Some they encountered had already been there 20 or 30 days, and some were said to be held up to a year on minor visa issues like his.
About four days after his arrest, a U.S. State Department employee visited in the prison, sitting in a comfortable room with a black leather couch that the embassy worker would later use to describe to Monica how good the conditions seemed to be.
Christopher was also allowed to write a letter to his mother, which was fairly cheerful and uncomplaining.
He knew others would be reading it, he said, and he didn’t want his mother to worry.
Meanwhile, Monica, Christopher’s brother, Jeremy, and his father, Scott, had worried since the 4:30 a.m. call from the State Department alerting them to Christopher’s plight.
Monica frequently pressed the embassy worker, Nathalie, for information. The distraught mother called the offices of U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly and The Tribune.
Walorski’s staff said they’d contact the State Department. Donnelly’s office said they’d become involved only after the 14 days were up.
But when a Tribune reporter contacted Donnelly’s office the Friday morning of Sept. 19, a spokeswoman said the office “reached out to the embassy directly asking for an update on Christopher.” Someone called Monica that morning to say the same.
The following Sunday at 10:30 p.m., Nathalie, the embassy employee, called to tell them Christopher would be released Friday and that they should quickly buy a return ticket, Monica said.
“She was very pleased and said her goal was to get him out of there as soon as possible,” Monica said. Nathalie told Monica she had only one request of her: “Would you please call Joe Donnelly’s office and let them know?”
Even so, Scott said the family still wasn’t certain their son would be allowed to leave. They were relieved when he walked off the plane at O’Hare in Chicago.
Since he’s been back home, he’s slept, eaten his mother’s cooking and had a chance to thank those at Bremen Missionary Church who had been praying for him. But he says he still has mental healing to do.
“I felt myself mentally cracking, just constant no sleep, not enough water, constant yelling,” Christopher said. “Never once did I feel like a human in there. I exited 12 to 15 pounds lighter than when I entered, degraded and hungry.”
The young man who still wants to travel and work for the State Department says he will appeal his name being on a blacklist in China for five years. Will he return to China?
“Over his dad’s dead body,” Scott says quickly, and they all laugh. For his part, Christopher says he won’t go back right away, but he might eventually.
“If that’s where God takes me, that’s where God takes me,” he said. His faith sustained him while he was detained, down to the Filipino girls who were in a cell somewhere below him who he could hear singing praise songs in English every morning through the open window.
“I’m very blessed,” he said.
His mother is grateful, too, saying, “God definitely had his hands on Christopher through the whole thing.”
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com
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