Foreigners in Korean prisons

In the Korea Times, Steve Kuack describes prison life for some 400 foreign inmates at Daejeon Correctional Institution:

A total of about 4,000 inmates are serving time, including roughly 300 foreign prisoners from 45 different countries. The alleged crime in question is usually divided along national lines: Malaysians, credit card fraud; Vietnamese, theft; Mongolians, manslaughter; and Westerners, drugs. Compared to Koreans, foreigners typically receive harsher sentences for identical crimes, but of the foreigners Westerners usually get lighter sentences than those from elsewhere.

What this means, of course, is if you’re a Westerner, leave the drugs at home. And if you, like me, are a Westerner married to a Mongolian, don’t piss off your inlaws.

According to extensive correspondence and interesting interviews with a vast array of foreign prisoners, their experience is a sobering reminder for everyone to cherish freedom. Assigned to cells aligned like the cramped quarters of the slave ships of the 17th century, two inmates share a cell with living quarters measuring no more than 4′ by 7′.

A sobering reminder to cherish freedom? How about a sobering reminder why it’s generally a bad idea to run credit scams, steal, kill, smuggle drugs or engage in other nonsense, either at home or abroad?

UPDATE: I just remembered that last year, a former Korean inmate of Daejeon Correctional filed a complaint with Korea’s human rights watchdog, complaining that foreign inmates were treated better than local ones:

Well, if it means anything to the guys, foreigners are apparently well treated in Korean prisons. Too well, in fact — a Korean ex-con recently released from a Daejeon prison after serving 20 years for murder has submitted a petition to the nation’s human rights watchdog complaining that foreign prisoners were treated better than Korean ones. Koreans were fed rice that was 80 percent rice and 20 percent barley, while foreigners were fed 100 percent rice, he claimed. Foreigners got more expensive food in the prison cafeteria, and the menu available for foreigners included pulgogi, cheese and ham, while the food Koreans ate was hard to even look at. Foreigners also got to buy cheese and tuna fish, while Koreans were not allowed to buy food like that, no matter how much money they had. Lastly, 20 percent of the foreign prisoners were sent out to work in outside factories, while Korean prisoners couldn’t even dream of this, he said.

Read the rest of that golden oldie on your own.

  • judge judy

    i was down there last year and was shocked by the conditions. it was in fact voted “worst prison in asia” not too long ago, but i can’t remember who did the survey. although i have little compassion for those getting themselves into such environs, the yuseong prison verges on the inhumane.

  • slim

    Hideous writing alert: “Coming to Korea with baskets of aspiring dreams has turned into barrels of dreaded nightmares for some.”

  • cm

    Worst prison in Asia?? I higly doubt it when you have lots of truly inhumane prisons in Middle East, Turkey, Iran, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Thailand etc.

    What’s so inhumane about it other then prisoners are made to sleep on floors, cold showers, fed 3 times a day, and generally be treated like criminals, which they are.

  • slim

    cm has a point. I would need to see those prison surveys. That crappy KT article didn’t help our understanding much with a mistaken focus on “freedom”.

  • michael

    Why was that guy complaining that foreign prisoners get 100% rice when a rice-barley mix is more nutritious? What an ingrate inmate. He’s got a point about the prison cafeteria though, the selection for waeguks is even better than our office cafeteria.

  • judging amy

    cm, I can’t agree with you more. Canadian Steve Kuack’s crude, nonobjective newsstory(the pt 1 of the two-part series) was attributable to imperfect preliminary research and insufficient collection of data before his legging it to the scene in order to cover the issue of the foreign criminals in Taejon Prison. Also seemingly, his wrong research and coverage are laying or preparing the ground for a wrong conclusion. The article just proves the solid fact that Steve has something yet to learn about Korea as well as why he is impossible to become a staff reporter in major Canadian media playground. Apart from his writing, “our discovery(!)” that many Canadian felons are serving the sentence in Korea is a rude awakening. Of course Korean prison conditions cannot possibly have the identical conditions to Canadian counterparts, where Steve Kuack usually roamed around. What motives prompted Steve to dare an attempt to cover the foreign criminals at the prison? To meet his relative(s), friend(s), inmate lover(s)? Who knows and who cares? The rest of the story lies hid out of our sphere……………..

  • dogbertt

    Crude…wrong research…insufficient collection of data…wrong conclusion….

    The way you put it, it sounds as though he fits in just fine as a staff reporter for a Korean paper.

  • peemil

    “And if you, like me, are a Westerner married to a Mongolian, don’t piss off your inlaws.”

    I want to know what he did with the goats.

  • peemil

    I mean- You seem pretty certain that pissing off your Mongolian in-laws could result in terrible retribution. Just wondering if you’re speaking from experience?

  • Robert

    peemil-The joke was supposed to refer to the fact that unlike the prisoners of other nationalities, many of whom (according to the story) are in pen for non-violent crimes, the Mongolians are in for manslaughter.

  • R. Elgin

    To receive their three daily meals, each one is served through a hole in the concrete. With the end of breakfast, Korean radio is blared into cells until 9 p.m. to entertain the prisoners with basically the same halfdozen Korean folk songs everyday.

    Forget the problems the article’s author may have; if this quote is factual, this is straight up torture (I am serious here). Not only is the justice system in Korea terribly disfunctional but they really *do* resort to mindless torture here. Even criminals should not be treated in this manner.

  • iwshim,GGLG:2005-29,GGLG:en&btnG=Google Search&as_epq=Steve Kuack&as_oq=&as_eq=&lr=&as_ft=i&as_filetype=&as_qdr=all&as_occt=any&as_dt=i&as_sitesearch=&as_rights=&safe=images

    He does seem to have some gems.

  • june

    I second michael here. I would rather get white rice with 20% barley than 100% white. Besides from its nutritional benefit, mixed grain rice has more texture and flavor that I like.

    Regarding R. Elgin’s comment, is it the same idea when the U.S. military played songs like “Exit Light” or some heavy metals to the prisoners overseas? I would be pleased with metals though…

  • Ray

    Regarding R. Elgin’s comment, is it the same idea when the U.S. military played songs like “Exit Light” or some heavy metals to the prisoners overseas? I would be pleased with metals though…

    These “troops” of ours have really bad taste in music.

    They should have played something from Ride The Lightning.


  • usinkorea

    I’m glad to finally get something more quotable about who exactly is in this prison. I had heard only GIs and both GIs and other nationals before and could never get a definative source (if you can call the Korean English press that) on the subject.

  • usinkorea

    The U.S. Justice Department’s move to jail four Korean businessmen for fixing semiconductor prices is as alarming as it is unprecedented. No doubt, this demonstrates Washington’s determination to punish those who hurt U.S. consumers’ interests, regardless of where they work and live. Still, it appears excessive to throw foreigners into U.S. prisons on top of imposing heavy penalties on their companies, while pardoning a U.S. firm under the same suspicion. Fairness matters in punishing unfair competition.

  • kushibo

    Why was that guy complaining that foreign prisoners get 100% rice when a rice-barley mix is more nutritious?

    Because he hasn’t heard of “welbing”?

    I was thinking the same thing, Michael.

    It reminds me of my personal run-in with the court system. Most foreign nationals, apparently, are funneled through a certain court so that interpreters and what-not can be more easily pooled.

    I was there because I was challenging a 1 million won fine for driving without a license (which I successfully got down to a 100,000 won fine for not having my license in hand), but some of the other “foreigners” there were in for violent crime or theft. While I drove myself to the courthouse, some of these people were marched in through a special entrance in the back.

    There was this one guy who was huge: NBA tall and NFL wide, built like the guy on “Green Mile” who cures everybody of their hacking cough.

    He took his time before the judge (his was a preliminary hearing of some kind) to make a complaint about the prison food: he wasn’t getting enough. Apparently the rations were tantamount to starvation for someone of his size. Also, he couldn’t eat any of the spicy stuff, and he asked the judge to give him a different diet.

    The judge said he has no control over the prison food. Next!