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Prison Diary of an English Teacher (2)
[Exclusive] One visa-less American has spent two months in prison awaiting deportation from Korea
Todd Thacker (todd)     Print Article 
Published 2005-05-18 09:13 (KST)   

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[쁺臾명렪吏 썝臾] Prison Diary of an English Teacher
[렪吏쟾臾] "寃쎌젣쟻쨌룄뜒쟻쑝濡 옒紐... 떎瑜 諛⑸쾿 李얠븘빞 븳떎"

The Guards

A few minutes ago the floor supervisor came inside our cell for one of their regular inspections. He was accompanied by one of the guards -- the one that most people like because he's the friendliest -- always ready with a quick smile. He also does small favors for us, like deliver notes or food to our friends in other cells and buying bakery bread from outside...

For the most part the Immigration and prison guards seem to be ordinary folks just doing their jobs. They have to deal with people who are not criminals in the harmful sense of the word, but are behind bars. So I think they try to do their best...

One of the guards (a young man in his late twenties, I think) says today is his last day. He can't handle the 24-hour shifts -- too stressful. I wish him good luck in the future and give him my Cyworld address.

Day to Day

Another day has come but is not yet gone. I make the best of my time here by studying Korean -- watching the news, reading the Bible in English and Korean, helping translate for the guards who can't speak English and the workers who don't speak Korean, including writing letters to the immigration officers and sometimes to the doctor's office...

All of us have irregular sleeping patterns. During the day we are relatively inactive and not allowed to go outside. But we are expected to be model prisoners and follow whatever orders that are given to us. There is a curfew at 11 p.m., a time when we are expected to go to sleep. Almost everyone ignores this.

As a result, at least in my cell, people sleep for most of the morning until lunchtime. (I usually get up very early and go to sleep early.) The guards are on a 24-hour shift, changing each morning.

Is it possible that these conditions are disruptive to normal sleep patterns and biorhythms? Could this lead to irritability, short attention spans, noise sensitivity, shortness of temper and a low tolerance for what is perceived as offensive? Could both staff and detainee alike be suffering from these symptoms?

I can only say that I have seen relatively minor incidents mushroom into full-blown shouting matches between staff and detainee. It seems both sides perceive, at times, a lack of respect for one another. (Also among detainees in having to live with each other in the same space.)

Guards have the option, apparently, of using a weapon (club) to subdue anyone they deem unruly. (Fortunately I have never witnessed anyone actually being struck by these tools of violence.)

Is it also possible that physical ailments are being caused by irregular sleep patterns? And what about the food? I, myself, am a vegetarian. The Muslims here don't eat pork. Some don't find the meals appetizing and eat only rice at times.

Medical Issues

My friend "I", who is 31, has a boil on his left shoulder -- it's more on his shoulder blade nearer to the middle of his upper back. When he went for our weekly checkup, the doctor said there wasn't much that could be done for hum (he did get a mysterious prescription of pills, though) in the detention center.

He should really go to a hospital outside of the detention center, but the authorities told "I" he would have to pay for any medical treatment outside. "I" says that if he spends any money on medical bills he would have less money for buying his airplane ticket home. So he must go untreated.

Does this make any sense? If immigration authorities have the right to take away our freedom, shouldn't they be obligated to make sure we are in the best of health? Is not our welfare, our very lives, in their hands? Are we not under their control?...

The shortage of staff to run this facility is a danger, especially at night when there are less staff on duty.

When one woman was seriously ill on Friday, April 22, we were told we couldn't have our weekly visit to the infirmary to see the doctor. Of course, if someone is seriously ill, they should be taken care of immediately. However, does that make it right to neglect the medical needs of the other detainees?

Once, when I asked a guard for something to put on a wound I had on my hand, I was told that because it was late, nothing was available. The medical staff had gone home for the day. I asked him if there was an emergency medical box -- he said no.


On Monday, April 11, at about 9:30 p.m., a woman tried to hang herself. I don't know exactly what happened, but thank god help arrived before it was too late. But it took way too long for that help to arrive because of the late hour and shortage of staff. From what I heard, she tried to hang herself from the bars outside her bathroom window, using a towel. I, my cellmates and the whole prison could hear screams and yelling. We all thought it was a fight at first...

Last night (April 22), there was a fire (I believe in cell 201). It happened around 3:30 a.m. I learned later that is was probably started by three Russian men (who are now in solitary confinement). Before this fire occurred I could hear people shouting downstairs, complaining and demanding that the TVs be restored. (I'm not sure if the people who started the fire were among their number.)

Luckily, the fire was contained. But what if it wasn't. Everyone, behind bars, have no ability to escape to safety. During the fire, the guards on our floor seems to be at a loss as to what to do (or rather, they were waiting to be told what to do.) One guard, if my memory is accurate, sat down at the office computer and played solitaire.

I have been told on more than one occasion that this facility is understaffed and under funded. There are not enough staff, guards or otherwise to safely run this prison. Which, in my view, cannot be lawful, let alone safe for staff or detainee. When a repairman comes to fix the phone or TV, he is locked inside with us. This is only because the guards trust us not to harm that person. (This is also the case whenever one of the staff enter our cells.)

Truth be told, if any detainee had a mind to harm him/herself or another detainee, cause damage to any of the fixtures or objects inside the cells, or start a fire, then it is not impossible. We are not supposed to have lighters or matches, yet a fire was started. How?

On Breaking the Law: 'We Are Not Criminals'

If we are being held in this facility because we have broken the law, then don't we have rights? Don't we have the right to appeal; to probation; to legal counsel; and to any and all such rights afforded to others who are also serving time for violations of the law? Don't Koreans who have committed even more serious violations get even more than we are given? Yet what is our "crime"? That we worked to earn our daily bread? Now we rot here day in, day out, at government expense -- the expense of the Korean people.

Which is the true crime? The laws that put us here or that we were just living by the sweat of our brows? We are not criminals! Why are we put into a facility with bars and locks? Why are we handcuffed when we are transferred to church?

Is it possible that locking people up as if they are criminals causes some of us to behave as if we were criminals? (Acting out, misbehaving, etc.) I must emphasize that the people here are working people, for the most part. Now we are being fed three times a day for doing absolutely nothing. We need activities. We need something constructive and creative to give us a sense of, at least hope, and if not that, just dignity...

People are kept here for far too long. Does it make any sense to pay the cost of locking a human being up for an indefinite period versus paying the price of an airplane ticket to send them home? In my view, it's financially stupid and morally repugnant.

Yes, we have broken the law, but there has to be a better way to deal with the issue. A better solution must be developed. If not for the sake of economy, then at least for the sake of kindness and compassion.

Instead of a punitive penal institution, why not an alternative solution-oriented policy that treats people with dignity and respect. Arresting and locking up workers for deportation is a half-measure band-aid solution applied to a never-healing wound.

The laws favor the employers, but severely penalize the workers. Currently, workers are hunted down and thrown into cages. Then they are told to leave the country. If they are lucky, their employers pay them what they are owed (in back wages.) If not, then they languish here. If people complain, especially if they complain too loudly, they are told to "be quiet." (In some cases, just "shut up.")

There's a running joke here that whenever someone asks when they are going home, they are told "tomorrow, or the day after."

Why not allow workers to get their money before you lock them behind bars (if we are to be locked up at all)? Wouldn't that make much more sense?
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Todd Thacker

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