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Jeni Smith teaches conversational English to South Korean inmates at Uijongbu Correctional Institute near Camp Stanley, South Korea, on Thursday.

Jeni Smith teaches conversational English to South Korean inmates at Uijongbu Correctional Institute near Camp Stanley, South Korea, on Thursday. (Seth Robson / S&S)

UIJONGBU CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, South Korea — Jeni Smith’s typical workday involves several hours in a small room with convicted South Korean murderers, rapists and other serious criminals.

The 21-year-old wife of 6th Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment soldier Spc. Dustin Smith has taught English to inmates at Uijongbu Correctional Institute for six months.

The prison, near Camp Stanley, houses 1,600 South Korean prisoners serving sentences of fewer than five years for less serious offenses. However, most of Smith’s 30 students are serving longer sentences for more serious crimes. They are brought to the prison to attend her classes and kept separate from the other inmates, according to prison officer Kim Gwang Jo.

The prison’s English language program started six years ago, growing from links between the prison and Camp Stanley. Since then, several 2nd Infantry Division spouses have taught conversational English to prisoners.

Prisoners from all over South Korea are eligible for the course if they can pass a difficult test, Kim said.

Smith, who makes about $30 an hour tutoring the inmates and said she never went near a prison before coming to South Korea about a year ago, doesn’t think there is danger in spending time with the violent offenders.

“I’d be more hesitant to do it in the States. In an American prison the inmates hoot and holler and scream. The South Korean inmates don’t act like criminals. They act like gentlemen. They never say anything that would be rude to me in English. I don’t see them as criminals and I never ask them what their crimes are,” she said.

Before she started work at the prison, Smith tutored South Korean English students, she said.

The prisoners look forward to the classes a lot more than normal students do, she said.

“Other people I teach kind of dread it. When they (the inmates) walk in in the morning they have big smiles on their faces,” she said.

The prisoners spend seven hours a day studying English in their cells in addition to the classes Smith gives twice a week.

During the sessions, in a small room also used for Buddhist counseling, she helps the inmates improve their skills, teaching them conversational English instead of the dated phrases they learn from textbooks, she said.

One of her first challenges was getting the prisoners to understand her northern accent, which sounds very different from her predecessor’s Southern accent, said Smith, a native of Fairfield, Pa.

One of Smith’s students, Kim Chang-seop, 37, is 10 years into a life sentence for murder, he said.

Kim, who grew up in Los Angeles, already speaks better English than Korean, but is taking the course to learn English teaching skills, he said.

“I will be incarcerated for many more years and want to teach English to the other prisoners,” he said.

Most of Smith’s students have at least a bachelor’s degree from a South Korean university, he said.

“The majority of people here think you have to learn English. Even in South Korean society you have to know the language,” Kim said.

Another of Smith’s students, Kim Po-hyoung, 36, is serving four years for fraud, he said.

The former stockbroker, who has a law degree from Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College, also is fluent in English but is taking the class to improve his conversation skills, he said.

Smith makes the class fun and brings games to help her students learn, he said.

Kim said working with Smith helps the inmates overcome their fear of speaking English in front of foreigners.

“Koreans are very conservative people. We need to overcome the fear of facing foreigners,” he said. “As soon as a foreigner stands in front of us, our throats go dry and we get nervous. We need to get rid of that fear.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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