For U.S. inmates in S. Korean prison, time feels like it's standing still

The U.S. prisoners share a kitchen where they prepare their own meals from ingredients supplied by U.S. Forces Korea under the Status of Forces Agreement.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 13, 2005

CHEONAN JUVENILE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION, South Korea — Peaceful Oriental music greets visitors to this collection of cellblocks surrounded by high concrete walls and guard towers about a two-hour drive south of Seoul.

It is the place authorities have chosen to incarcerate U.S. servicemembers convicted of serious crimes by South Korean courts. Six U.S. servicemembers currently are detained here among a population of just under 500 South Korean teenage violent offenders.

The U.S. inmates’ crimes range from drunken driving causing death, to drug dealing and murder. The most notorious of the U.S. inmates is a 32-year-old Camp Casey soldier convicted of murdering a Tongduchoen club worker, then mutilating her body in 1992. That inmate will complete his 15-year sentence in 2007.

The prison’s chief of security, Lee Kyoung- young, said the U.S. inmates behave well, although one U.S. prisoner was recently moved to another prison for fighting. A few other U.S. servicemembers, with ongoing cases, are at other prisons but Cheonan is the eventual destination for U.S. servicemembers jailed by the South Korean courts, he said.

Lee said U.S. prisoners are treated differently than South Korean inmates because of the status of forces agreement, which dictates how they must be handled.

They are segregated from South Korean prisoners and don’t perform the sort of hard labor assigned to adult inmates convicted of serious offenses.

SOFA regulations also dictate that U.S. inmates get individual cells, whereas Korean inmates share cells. And U.S. Forces Korea supplies the U.S. inmates with Western food.

Only one servicemember — a U.S. Air Force captain serving five years for possession, use and dealing of cocaine — agreed to talk, on condition that his name not be printed.

A sense of isolation

The 40-year-old officer, a native of Los Angeles, spoke inside the cellblock he shares with the other U.S. inmates.

Inside the walls of the prison, there is a large exercise yard where South Korean prisoners in blue overalls play basketball and participate in regimented calisthenics sessions overseen by guards.

Next to the yard are several dozen concrete cellblocks, a medical clinic and a factory where inmates learn skills such as welding.

The cellblock that houses the U.S. inmates is a gray, concrete hallway, stretching the length of the building, with iron cell-doors spaced along the side. U.S. inmates live in one half of the cellblock, South Korean inmates in the other.

The captain showed off his small cell, containing a bed, desk, television and a large collection of books. In prison, he has renewed his Christian faith and studied toward a master’s degree in theology from a U.S. seminary, he said.

The drug offenses that landed him in prison happened while he served as an Air Force public affairs officer at Yongsan Garrison in 2000, he said.

“There was usage and drug abuse involved … I was on the wrong track, one thing led to another and I got arrested. They got me for being a drug dealer, but 99 percent of my case was drug use,” said the captain, who added that he is determined to put that part of his life behind him.

“I understand I made a grave mistake and my life is forever affected by it. I am and will always be deeply regretful for my decisions. I lost my job, my status. I lost my father, who died three months after my arrest. It has been a very deep and emotional experience,” he said.

The officer wouldn’t say much about the other U.S. inmates, some of whom have been convicted of extreme acts of violence.

“We are here together. We are here by chance. It is a small environment, so we have to learn to get along,” he said.

The U.S. inmates get one hour of recreation a day, six days a week, said the captain, who enjoyed golf, tennis, basketball and scuba diving before he went to prison. These days he just walks around outside during recreation time, he said.

The only activity the U.S. inmates do together is cook the food delivered by USFK in their communal kitchen, he said.

“We get the same ingredients all the time — vegetables, fruit, meat and condiments. We have to figure out how to put it all together. We all like meat loaf. I have been on the Atkins low-carb diet, so I do a lot of salads. We cook spaghetti and a whole lot of chicken. We bake it, pan fry it, deep fry it, steam it,” he said.

On Thursday afternoon, a pot of water boiled on a gas stove in the kitchen as several U.S. prisoners, some in their blue prison overalls, one in shorts and a T-shirt, wandered in and out as they prepared a meal.

Outside world far away

The hardest part about being in a South Korean prison is the isolation from familiar things, the captain said.

“It is deep. It is emotional. We feel dislocated … disconnected from everything that we are familiar with,” he said. “We are not at home. Our units have basically abandoned us. The distance from the U.S. to Korea is so great that family members cannot afford to travel here.”

In five years, the officer said he’s only received one family visit, two years ago, when his brother and sister-in-law came for Christmas and were allowed to spend two hours with him.

Soldiers get visits from the Camp Humphreys-based 249th Military Police Battalion twice a week, the captain said.

“There have been one or two officers in my chain of command who reached back despite the situation, kept in touch and did what they could despite the gravity of what I had done,” he said.

Army chaplains resumed visits to the prison nine months ago after an 18-month period when they did not come, and there are regular visits by American missionaries working in South Korea, he said.

The U.S. inmates see the Korean prisoners only in passing, the captain said.

“We know who they are and they know who we are, but we are segregated. Technically we are not supposed to intermingle,” he said.

Some of the U.S. prisoners have learned to speak Korean but most have not, he said.

The U.S. inmates are not allowed to watch broadcast television, but can listen to South Korean radio stations and receive videotapes. Some subscribe to English-language newspapers to stay in touch with current events.

“I was up studying on September 11, 2001. A senior guard came to my window just before midnight and indicated that there was an attack in New York and the towers had fallen down. We read the newspapers the next morning and listened to the radio,” recalled the officer, who also follows the war in Iraq closely.

“I wish I was over there (in Iraq). I had a family member over there who served almost a year — my uncle who was in the reserves. He sent me pictures and told me about the bad things he saw,” he said.

The officer said his time in a South Korean prison would never leave him.

“It is part of who I am. Hopefully it will make me stronger and wiser,” he said.

A U.S. inmate sits in his cell. U.S. inmates get their own cells and are allowed to own books, televisions and video players.

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