We expel them by force! A journey inside South Korea’s only private prison

Gettong ready to undergo character-building sessions

Getting ready to undergo character-building sessions

By Pooneh Nedai
Editor in chief of Shokaran magazine- Iran

Seoul: Do you prefer to live in a prison with lots of facilities or live freely in a poor cage?

But there are inmates who prefer Somang private prison to state prison!

Somang is actually a correction institution for the inmates who really want to change themselves.

The only private prison in Asia is located in Yeoju, South Korea. Its name means Hope in Korean.

It is interesting to know that the system of this prison is designed to provide high level of humanitarian behavior toward inmates; the way to evaluate human dignity which can be found in a utopia.

But such a utopia practically exists in Somang correction institution.

We were several Asian journalists who had the chance by invitation of Asian Journalist Association (AJA) to visit Somang.

The warden taking the journalists on a tour of South Korea's only private prison

The warden taking the journalists on a tour of South Korea’s only private prison

We met the Kwon Gi-Hun, the warden. He explained: “Somang has been active for nine years. In 1991, the law for private prison was passed through national assembly. In 1995, the building was made by a church. In 2001, Agape was established to support the institution. In 2003, a contract between the government and Agape was signed and in 2010, Somang started to operate.”

The private prison is just for men and its capacity is 400 inmates, the warden said.

When I asked about the selection of inmates for Somang, he added: “We interview inmates in state and if we realize that they are really eager to change themselves, we accept them.”

Kwon insisted: “we do not accept drug prisoners. 60 percent of inmates are violence criminals.”

After a complete explanation, we had the chance to visit parts of the prison. They got our passport and issued us visitors’ cards.

From now on the photos taken by the staff of prison, since we had to leave our belongings, including cameras and mobile phones, in the office.

Lining up for Korean lunch prepared by the inmates

Lining up for Korean lunch prepared by the inmates

We visited places for therapy and different kinds of classes, music, foreign languages, theater, a convenience room and a full equipped suite for a 4 hour and 24 hour meeting of the inmate with his family, places for teaching jobs like barbershops, laundry, making handicrafts,  and many other options, all with enough natural light.

There are 3000 volunteers in a year who support inmates for a better life and state of mind.

But there are two important steps for each inmate before and after their time in Somang.

Before they start their sentence, they write their goals, a sort of wish list, on a piece of paper. Then, they read in a loud voice for others and hide them in a box.

After they are released from jail, the paper is brought from the box and then there is an assessment whether they have really reached their goal or not.

Cleanliness is a major feature of all the rooms

Cleanliness is a major feature of all the rooms

The inmates live with each other and with the prison staff like an extended family.

They prepare the food themselves and eat with the warden and the staff.

At the end of their jail sentence, a party is organized for them. However, most of them do not want to leave the prison! and as said by a staff: “we expel them by force!”

Then they know how to live within the society, have their own income and be good people.

Near the end of the visit, I felt humbled  when I looked at some of the inmates, especially the younger ones, in the eye because I was free and they were in prison.

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