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Prison Diary of an English Teacher
[Exclusive] One visa-less American has spent two months in prison awaiting deportation from Korea
Todd Thacker (todd)     Print Article 
Published 2005-05-17 18:30 (KST)   
In recent months the Korean government has been cracking down nationwide on foreign English teachers working illegally.

English-language instruction is a massive industry here, with relatively high salaries for native English speakers and the owners of the private institutions. But over the past few years, stories of unqualified instructors have faced the glare of the media spotlight.

In the most recent instance, a television documentary in February highlighted negligence and criminal activities by some of these foreign teachers, prompting public outcry and renewed government action.

Widespread arrests and deportations have alarmed the expat community. Many feel there is no due process and point to insufficient legal representation, protections and instances of "summary justice."

One visa-less American English teacher, who was arrested by police in the port city of Busan on March 24, sent OhmyNews a long, diary-style letter on May 2 detailing the circumstances surrounding his arrest, his day-to-day prison life and recommendations for improvements in the system. The letter's return address was from the Ministry of Justice's Immigration Office Detention Center at Yeosu, along Korea's south coast.

The writer, who does not want to be identified for fear of retribution, spoke with OhmyNews on numerous occasions by public telephone from his prison cell. He said he loves Korea and wants to help improve a "broken" system.

In his letter he details the "Catch-22" faced by many of his cell mates -- not just English teachers -- who were arrested and then incarcerated without being able to receive their paychecks to buy air tickets back home. The Korean government only pays for deportation airfare when a prisoner harms him or herself.

An edited version of his letter appears here in two parts. -- Ed.
The crackdown by the Korean government has incarcerated hundreds around the nation.

I wake up earlier than the others. It's after 6 a.m., April 14. The guards turn on the lights at around 6:55 a.m. It's the only time during the day when I can clearly hear myself think. It's a time to prepare for the day ahead. It's a time to just be.

The sun has already risen. Our bathroom window faces west. We can see (through the outer wall window on the other side of the corridor running around our cells) a yard surrounded on three sides by hills that have been landscaped to form rocky, earthen walls -- the tops of which are covered by trees and scrubs. The hill directly across has an electrical tower on top.

It's my 15th day here at the Ministry of Justice's Yeosu Immigration Office Detention Center. (Before I came here I spent seven days at the Busan Immigration Office.)

About the Author

Dear Korean people,
Please forgive me for my wrongdoing. Forgive me for falling in love with your country, food, culture, people, history, land, spirit, cities, mountains, trees, traditions, manners, neighborhoods, skies, rivers, scenery, atmosphere, joys, triumphs, disappointments, fashions, parks, museums, language, movies, TV shows, music, families, seasons, paintings, arts and much, much more for the past six and a half years.

I was born in New York City. My parents are Jamaican. I'm 34 years old. I studied Korean here for two years at Seoul National University, but I still have so much more to learn. If I am able to in the future, I wish to continue my studies, live in Korea and eventually become a Korean citizen. I want to contribute whatever I can to making my adopted home the best place it can be.
I was taken into custody by two police officers on Thursday, March 24, 2005, on suspicion of teaching English at a Busan language institute without a proper visa.

In short, I was tried, convicted and sentenced -- or rather handed over to the immigration office authorities to be deported. Immigration determined that the case against me was valid. I was told I had to leave Korea...

When I was first brought to the immigration authorities in Busan, I was threatened verbally as well as physically because I refused to show them my passport. It was taken from me by force after at least seven immigration and police officials held me down (one, almost suffocated me by covering my mouth.) Before they knew I was an American they thought I was from some African country. After they learned I was American, their attitudes changed drastically...

Although I can't blame the police and immigration officials for trying to do their jobs, I believe my human rights were violated. I do not seek retribution. I don't want revenge. I do, however, feel that if the way I was treated in their zeal to determine my identity is common practice, then such procedures should be immediately discontinued, corrected and discouraged by law.

I never had the benefit of protection of a lawyer during the entire time I have been in police and immigration custody. I was never properly informed about what my rights are. I don't even know the names of any of police and immigration officials that I have encountered so far.

I never knew my rights when I was arrested. I never saw a judge. The only time I had the benefit of a translator was when I was asked to give a statement -- in which the police officer who was typing it and asking me questions -- conveniently left out the incident where I was brought to immigration in the dead of night and verbally and physically assaulted by seven officers because I refused to cooperate. Is this justice?...

The Human Rights appeal form is out of reach. Actually, it's practically invisible. When I was in "room" 304 I didn't even know it existed or that I had the right to access it. Only when I was moved to "room" 302 did I notice (many days later) it was taped up on the window of the guards' office (located centrally in the middle of the third floor. Moreover, I learned of it only because a friend told me that I had the right to file a complaint -- I then requested a copy, which initially was denied by the person in charge -- whose name I do not know -- but would prefer to leave out of the matter -- in general -- because it is practice and policy that matters more in the end.

On Thursday, April 21, I was given a copy after complaining to the Human Rights Commission by phone. Today at around 10 a.m. I was asked to sign for a fax from the Human Rights Commission. I did so. The fax was delivered to me a day late, but I signed the receipt form anyway. (I don't know the name of the immigration official who delivered it.) He was, at first, upset that I didn't immediately sign it; of course I said I wanted to read it first. After I signed it he thanked me, gave me a copy, and left...

Ever since I filed my Human Rights petition over the phone with Mrs. Lee Youn Hee, the guards have been neglecting me -- more like consciously avoiding me (shunning me as if I had a terrible disease.) They either have ignored me when I have tired to get their attention (to ask a question) or they simply say, "I don't know," or "Ask the staff."

At some time, often 10 a.m., I am taken by one of the immigration officials (maybe a Mr. Lee) to see one of the higher-level officials (maybe a Mr. Jang, I don't know.) He tells me I'm just like everyone else here. He feels sorry for me. But the law is the law. If or when I leave Korea, I won't be able to return for up to a year, three years or more. Who knows? I guess it's not news really. I was told this by officials in Busan Immigration. Should I leave my friends behind? Should I abandon my home?

Fellow Prisoners' Stories

The massive Mongolian sings beautifully. A sad falsetto -- I imagine it to be about missing a faraway homeland of vast, green pastures, endless fertile grasslands, deserts and broad skies.

My friend "G" tells me that seven women from Russia, China, Thailand and the Philippines) will be going home tomorrow. The news brings a broad smile to my face. "G" is from Uzbekistan. He was arrested by immigration officers along with his wife and several other coworkers from India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan for working illegally at a plastic car parts factory.

Every morning he calls the factory boss (or owner, I'm not sure) to plead for the wages they haven't received. If they don't' get the money they can't buy their plane tickets to go back home. Which basically means that they must stay imprisoned indefinitely.

Even if the Korean government paid for their plane ticket to go home, how would they take care of themselves when they returned to their native country? "G" has told me that Korea has been his home for nine years. He's 37. He has no home in Uzbekistan to return to.

From what I've learned (from talking to immigration officers in Yeosu and Busan), the employers of illegal migrant workers must pay them the wages owed. But some employers try to evade the law to keep the profits...

My friend "M" from Nigeria says that his former employer refuses to pay them (four of his coworkers are here also) for the last three months. He says that without that money, he can't go home. So he'll have to find another way.

Why not seize the factory owners and their assets? Why not give the workers a chance to get their money and do for themselves instead of having them sit idle for weeks, months or longer?

In this prison people's lives are being taken away from them day by day. It is not only the workers behind the bars that suffer, but also the workers on the other side of the bars as well.

The Cells

The floor is covered by giant 1x1 meter foam rubber jigsaw puzzle tiles. We eat mostly here. I guess it is kind of a day room.

The central part is where we sleep. The floor has a heating system installed underneath (ondol) The rear part is the bathroom. It has two sinks, two showers, and a smaller room with a door as the toilet. The three sections are separated by walls that have one door with a window each and two large windows on both sides.

The two windows between the day room and the sleeping room have sliding window frames. We can get a nice breeze from the east side of the building to the west if all the doors and windows on the bathroom wall and the outside corridor are open.

All in all there is a great sense of open spaciousness. Despite the fact that we are "behind bars," when you are in the sleeping room or bathroom, if you don't see the bars you wouldn't know you were in a prison.

However, we are not allowed to go outside. I am told it's because there isn't enough staff, but that in May they will let people go out for exercise, fresh air and sunshine. There is a yard outside on the west side of the building.

The detention center is four stories tall. I am on the 3rd floor. In this part of the building there are two atriums with skylights on the roof. The second, third and fourth floors have an office in the middle that sits between the two atriums encased in glass windows so as to have a clear view of the six or seven cells on the east and west side.

The south side of the building has the smaller solitary confinement rooms. The north side has the administrative offices and visiting rooms. The first floor has midsize rooms. So far only the third and fourth floors seem to be used to keep us in.

On the east side you can see the sunrise from the bathroom window. There is a hill of the right side of the building. It has a number of traditional gray cottages on the top. Below the hill, next to the building is a parking lot and driveway. Farmland -- rice fields, I guess -- can be seen to the left. Railroad tracks run towards the east along a large road which I think runs past this building.

Inside the cell atrium area, people can talk to each other across the two atrium spaces (which is surrounded by vertical stainless steel bars). Women and men are kept apart, but they can talk to each other. Everyone can.

Related Articles
Prison Diary of an English Teacher (2)
[렪吏쟾臾] "寃쎌젣쟻쨌룄뜒쟻쑝濡 옒紐... 떎瑜 諛⑸쾿 李얠븘빞 븳떎"

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©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Todd Thacker

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