Aptly named Hope, Asia’s first private prison provides positive character change

 The camera shows the hands of an inmate at Somang Correctional Institution performing toreutics work. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

An inmate at Somang Correctional Institution performing toreutics work. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

By Sang-ki Lee
Executive director and former President of the Asia Journalists Association

Seoul: Upon completing this article, reports emerged on the Internet and on social media that the suspect of Hwaseong serial murders of 30 years ago has been identified.

The suspect, who was in his 20s at the time, is known to have “sexually assaulted his sister in law in January 1994 after she came to his house at Heungdeok-gu, Cheongju, murdered her and disposed of her body.” He was sentenced to death in the first trial and is now serving the sentence at a penitentiary in a province.

The Hwaseong serial murders from 1986 to 1991 resulted in at least ten victims. The scene of the Hwaseong police station on November 9, 1990, and from Memories of Murder presented in 2003 passed by my eyes like a panoramic view.

Several years ago, a close acquaintance of mine told me that there is a privately-run penitentiary at Yeosu, but journalists hardly notice it.

In the beginning, I was not impressed. “Isn’t it a prison after all?” I asked.

My friend insisted. “You should see it for yourself. It wouldn’t be so bad to be imprisoned in such a place.”

I pledged to look into it. “I will think about it,” I said.

After a while, I recalled the conversation and remembered the place. Through research, I was able to find out that the place was called ‘Yeoju Somang Correctional Institution.’

“Somang” is the Korean word for “hope”.

The Ministry of Justice supported 90% of its budget and it is operated by Agape Foundation. The searches also showed that the chairperson was Kim Sam-hwan, a senior pastor of Myungsung Presbyterian Church.

‘Myungsung Presbyterian Church…’

As I have been writing articles on the succession issue of the Myungsung Church for the last several years, I assumed it would be difficult to receive a press pass.

However, a pastor with whom I had associations, contacted me and said that Kim Sam-hwan agreed to let me in.

“He just wants the facts to be clarified,” the pastor said.

Somang Correctional Institution features a family meeting room where the inmates and their families can dine together and chat (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

Somang Correctional Institution features a family meeting room where the inmates and their families can dine together and chat (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

The correctional institution argued that “the recovery of the familial relationship is the core factor of the inmates’ successful re-adjustment to society and the prevention of a second conviction after they are released from the penitentiary.”

It was shortly after 9 o’clock when I arrived at Yeoju station after riding the subway from Sinsa to Pangyo station in the early hours of August 26.

I read the articles about the Somang Correctional Institution that I had found. They were mostly about the events. The articles that were known to be highly credible all held negative and critical opinions.

As I headed to the penitentiary with Yang Jae-young chief manager who had waited, I asked him about the articles related to this particular penitentiary. His responses were greatly beneficial. After about 40 minutes, we arrived at the main entrance. Its external appearance was not very different from ordinary penitentiaries.

Under the guidance of Chung Tae-young, I went into the room of Kwon Ki-hun, the director. Kwon became the third director in 2018, after he officially finished his career as a government correctional officer in December 2016.

“Is your second career interesting?” I asked

“It is very rewarding. It is unfortunate that there are not many facilities like this.”

This was how our conversation started. He highlighted the most salient features of the Somang Correctional Institution.

“This is the only non-profit penitentiary in Asia that is privately run. There are numerous privately managed penitentiaries in the United States, but some of them are organized for profit,” he said.

“Here the inmates who are sentenced from one to seven years usually come here from other prisons after being examined by the Ministry of Justice.”

Around 65% of the inmates are violent criminals who committed murder, robber, rape, and other felonies, while the rest are guilty of sexual offenses.

There are currently about 54,000 inmates imprisoned in the penitentiaries of Korea. The high arrest rate and the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon are the issues.

Penitentiaries should be focused more on the correction and character rebuilding of the criminals than on the punishment for their crimes, Kwon said.

Director Kwon Ki-hoon (left) explains the handicrafts made by the inmates. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

Director Kwon Ki-hoon (left) explains the handicrafts made by the inmates. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

The officers and staff at Somang Correctional Institution view helping the inmates to gain courage and to re-adjust to society after they are released so that they can become more valuable although they have committed crimes, he added.

A temporary park is constructed in front of the prison main building. The park, which almost appears as a restoration of a rural town, is the place the inmates first see when they are released from the prison. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

A minuature park is constructed in front of the prison main building. The park, which looks like a restoration of a rural village, is the place the inmates first see when they are released from the prison. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

The parole rate among the 400 Somang Correctional Institution inmates through their exemplary behavior in prison makes us glad.

The Somang Correctional Institution workers organize the ‘Somang home celebration’ on March 8 and invite the released convicts to have a conversation with them. There are many former convicts who show up the event.

In the event held last August in Sungnam, about 40 released convicts, workers, and voluntary workers gathered and enjoyed their time.

“Such events are very rare across the world. The inmates seem to be satisfied with the improvements of penitentiary facilities that provide personal treatment and skills and language learning opportunities.”

However, Kwon Ki-hun expressed his concern about “the social discriminations and cold treatment inmates face after their release as there are unsolvable issues,” and mentioned that “we can’t make the inmates accept such treatments.”

On the first floor of the penitentiary building, there is an aquarium where tropical fishes are kept. The penitentiary said that “although it is a policy not to place objects made out of glass, we installed the aquarium for the inmates to share the external view of life can be felt together." (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

On the first floor of the penitentiary building, there is an aquarium where tropical fishes are kept. The penitentiary said that “although it is a policy not to place objects made out of glass, we installed the aquarium for the inmates to share the external view of life can be felt together.” (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

Somang Correctional Institution will mark the 10th anniversary in December next year. The total population of 520 people consisting of 400 inmates and 120 workers eat together in the same area in Oeyong-ri, Buknae-myeon, Yeoju-si

According to former Attorney General Park Sang-gi, the second offense rate of the criminals who have been at the Somang Correctional Institution is half the crime rate by people who were in different penitentiaries.

'Respect' is the message that inmates see each day as they move around in prison. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

‘Respect’ is the message that inmates see each day as they move around in prison.
(Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

After the interview, we moved to the cafeteria as I wished to eat with the inmates of Somang Correctional Institution.

As we headed to the cafeteria located inside the penitentiary building, I had to leave my phone with the staff at the front.

The meal, which started slightly before noon, was served buffet style; people could take amounts of food on their trays. The menu on that day was boiled rice with four side dishes of chicken, dried pollack soup, corn salad, and Kimchi. The fixed price for lunch is 2,600 won for the staff and 1,500 won for the inmates, but Somang Correctional Institution does not make distinctions on the menus and both the workers and the inmates eat the same meal. The inmates who met Kwon Ki-hun quickly greeted him, without any hesitation.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you doing?”

If it had not been not for the uniform, it would have been difficult to tell whether this was happening in a prison or in an ordinary restaurant.

As I walked down the hall after finishing the meal, aphorisms and the still-life drawings that resembled abstract works adorned the walls.

One of those caught my attention. “My smile makes you smile.” It is the one that won a prize in the ‘Good Phrase Contest’ organized by the Somang Correctional Institution. Many of the inmates here have little to smile about except when they are looking forward to an upcoming release from the penitentiary.

However, just as I witnessed during the mealtime, their smiles were not lost and, to be exact, were starting to return to their faces.

An artwork ‘Decision’ by artist Lee Tae-woon seems to be asking viewers: What kind of life would you choose to live? (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

An artwork ‘Decision’ by artist Lee Tae-woon seems to be asking viewers: What kind of life would you choose to live? (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

After the ‘delicious and tasty’ meal with the inmates, I sat with three prison officers. The three, Kim Moon-hyung, Park So-young and Shin Jung-ho, were in their 30s and 40s. They are soon to be leading the new generation of Somang Correctional Institution.

Sitting with three officers. "The most satisfying prisoners of hope prison are to call their name, not the number,” they said. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

Sitting with three officers. “The most satisfying prisoners of hope prison are to call their name, not the number,” they said. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

I arranged their unhindered remarks on the inmates and the Somang Correctional Institution.

One of them has been there for seven years and a half while the two are the members started to work here in 2010.

“The youth counseling in which I majored during my college years proved to be very beneficial.”

“I am in charge of the consulting program. It is difficult to find differences from ordinary people when conducting depression screening.”

“In my case, I am working from a sense of obligation. Of course, it’s rewarding.”

“I almost cry without even realizing when I see a mobile interview.”

“At first, everyone feels a sense of aggrievement but seeing them eventually finding stability and preparing for the time after their release from prison makes me glad.”

“It is very unfortunate when some inmates are excluded from parole or when they are moved to other penitentiary for their other crimes.”

At the end of the interview, I threw two common questions. “What do you think the inmates in Samang are most pleased with?” and “What do you want most?”

The answers coincided as if they had been written in advance.

“We call the inmates by their names instead of using their numbers. They were very pleased with it.”

“Our capacity is currently 400, and we wish we could have more even if increases our workload.”

The inmates answering questions. One of them visited the office of “AsiaN” two days after his release and discussed the changes he experienced following his time of two years at Somang Correctional Institution. He claimed that he feels he could “live a proper life from now on.” (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

The inmates answering questions. One of them visited the office of “AsiaN” two days after his release and discussed the changes he experienced following his time of two years at Somang Correctional Institution. He claimed that he feels he could “live a proper life from now on.” (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

In order to meet the inmates as initially requested, I returned to the building where I had lunch and went into the meeting room in the rehabilitation department. Two inmates were seated. They were Shin who was in his mid-40s and Lee in his early 30s. They are the people who sat at the table next to mine when we had lunch.

Shin, who used to work at a college, said he came to this place after being in the Seoul Detention Center and Chuncheon Correctional Institution. He would soon complete his three years and a half term and he will be released within two weeks.

On September 10, two days after his release, he visited “AsiaN” office and had a pleasant reunion with me. Shin said: “I taught English to the inmates for one hour every day and Japanese for two hours a week.”

“I can’t forget that people who couldn’t meet outside had conversations with us every Tuesday. I was especially thankful for the programs that helped me to reflect on myself,” he said.

A board with the words ‘Vision Center’ catches the eye. Somang Correctional Institution wishes to offer dreams and visions to the inmates even though they are imprisoned. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

A board with the words ‘Vision Center’ catches the eye. Somang Correctional Institution wishes to offer dreams and visions to the inmates even though they are imprisoned. (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

Lee, who is in his early 30s, used to work as a soldier, but came to this place following a sexual offense. He is to be released in the Spring of 2021 after serving half of his term.

He said that “although I ended up imprisoned here due to my own actions, I’m sure I would be living nightmares if I were not here.”

Having majored in physical education in college, he came to learn so much in this place.

“Reading, English, piano, and violin… I could not even imagine learning these if I had not come to Somang Correctional Institution. However, they have now become part of my daily routine. The important things I gained are confidence in myself and composure.”

Hwang Jeong-ho secretary general, Kwon Ki-hun director, the writer, Chung Tae-young general from the left.

Kwon Ki-hun director, Chung Tae-young general, Hwang Jeong-ho secretary general came in the same camera angle. The camera also appears to have taken images of the people who dreamed of their second lives at the end of 2010 following the opening of this place.

From the left: Hwang Jung-ho, Kwon Ki-hoon, Sang-ki Lee and Jeong Tae-young

From the left: Hwang Jung-ho, Kwon Ki-hoon, Sang-ki Lee and Jeong Tae-young

As I finish this article, the pictures taken during the visit at the time, the faces of the inmates and prison officers, and the face of the Hwaseong Serial criminal overlapped with the fact that correctional institution can be a starting point for a new life, instead of an end to life.

This short and concise sentence “My smile makes you smile” is the beginning and the end of establishing Somang Correctional Institution (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

This short and concise sentence “My smile makes you smile” is the beginning and the end of establishing Somang Correctional Institution (Photo by Jaeyoung Yang)

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