Chinese prisoners were forced to earn virtual money in online games (MMOs) that was then traded for real-world money, according to a former inmate interviewed by The Guardian this week.
The anonymous man, himself a former prison guard who was incarcerated in 2004 for three years after "illegally petitioning" perceived government corruption, stated that in addition to his hard labour duties - which included mining coal - he was forced to play games for up to 12 hours at a time, performing simple tasks that resulted in game currency.
People have engaged in this dubious practice - dubbed " gold farming" - for more than a decade. Farmers in developing countries sell the virtual currency they acquire to players residing in richer Western countries who'd rather not spend the time it takes to earn virtual money themselves. This virtual market, which some have estimated to be worth more than a billion dollars, is typically prohibited and policed by the makers of MMO games.
The Guardian's source said he overheard guards discussing that the operation was garnering between 5,000 and 6,000 Chinese yuan (about $750 to $900) per day, and that prisoners saw none of this money.
He also said he was physically punished when he failed to meet quotas.
"They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes," he said. "We kept playing until we could barely see things."
Another British newspaper, The Telegraph , interviewed a Chinese official Thursday who flatly denied any possibility of gold farming operations in the country's prisons.
"We do not have large numbers of computers," said the official. "And we do not allow our prisoners to have any contact with the outside world. If they were playing these online games they could easily communicate with other people. We would never allow that."
However, the anonymous prisoner told The Guardian not only have prison-run gold farming operations taken place in the past, but that he believes they are ongoing.
"Many prisons across the north-east of China also forced inmates to play games," he said. "It must still be happening."