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Treatment is lacking for mentally ill convicts

Apr 30,2019
Cho Sung-nam, head of the National Forensic Psychiatry Hospital, knows he is about to get a celebrity patient: the man accused of setting fire to his apartment in Jinju, South Gyeongsang, to scare his neighbors into fleeing down a staircase - and then stabbing five of them to death, wounding six others.

Cho’s mental hospital in Gongju, South Chungcheong, run by the Ministry of Justice for convicted criminals with mental illnesses, was home once before to Ahn In-deuk, the 42-year-old Jinju suspect. In 2010, Ahn was convicted of slashing the face of a college student he didn’t know with a knife in downtown Jinju and sentenced to two years in jail. In lieu of prison, he was sent to Cho’s hospital, where he was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia and stayed for nine months.

Cho expects to see Ahn again, assuming a court convicts him and determines him to have mental issues. But the doctor doubts Ahn will get the treatment he obviously needs.

Korea’s infrastructure for rehabilitating convicts with mental illnesses barely exists.

The National Forensic Psychiatry Hospital, about 78 miles south of Seoul, is ground zero for that mission. It currently has 1,091 patients and only seven psychiatrists on its payroll. That’s 156 patients for each psychiatrist, who all happen to be women. Four more doctors cover non-psychiatric medical needs.

“The hospital is planning to go through renovations to place 400 more beds, up from the current 1,200, but ironically, we can’t receive more patients because it’s impossible to hire more doctors,” said Cho.

“Ahn In-deuk will be coming here soon, but the only thing we’d be able to provide him is medication.”

Patients in the Gongju hospital are normally divided into three groups: people struggling with a mental illness, drug addiction or those convicted of sexual offenses.

Each group receives different treatment and socialization education, but only two-thirds of the entire body go through in-depth psychological therapy due to a shortage of doctors. The rest rely on medication.

The hospital doesn’t have the budget to purchase new medical equipment. It doesn’t have an MRI, which is considered critical to treating mental illnesses.

“The hospital is so short on medical facilities that patients here often have to go to a different hospital to receive necessary treatment,” said Lee Hyeong-seob, who’s in charge of the hospital’s administrative support team. “We don’t have enough workers, too, which is why we can’t go on vacation.”

The comparatively low salaries that are paid are a chief reason the Gongju mental hospital struggles to hire doctors. On average, the doctors are paid about 7 million won ($6,050) per month, less than half of what they could make if they opened private clinics.

To reduce the Gongju mental hospital’s workload, the Ministry of Health and Welfare established special wards in five different mental hospitals across the country since 2015, requiring them to receive some patients from Gongju with relatively minor mental illnesses.

So far, however, only the Bugok National Hospital in Changnyeong County, South Gyeongsang, is living up to the requirement by handling 40 such patients.

Ultimately, the main problem with the Gongju hospital is that it can’t hire enough doctors, which limits the number of patients it can accept. That translates into unstable criminals left behind in prison cells, where their conditions almost always grow worse.

According to data from the Ministry of Justice this past Tuesday, the number of prisoners with mental illnesses grew nearly 60 percent from 2,607 people in 2012 to 4,148 in 2018 - 7.7 percent of all 54,000 prisoners in Korea. There were 300 to 400 prisoners with schizophrenia nationwide last year, one of the more serious diagnoses.

A Justice Ministry official said that the infrastructure for prisoners with serious mental illnesses is so nonexistent that their conditions often grow worse.

“They’re supposed to be placed in solitary confinement, but prisons with a high accommodation rate can’t afford that,” said the source. “So they get beaten or mentally grow worse when forced to mingle with the other prisoners.”

BY KIM MIN-SANG, LEE EUN-JI [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]


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