Freed of despair by pen palsIt started as a hobby; she did not expect it to last long. But it is now six years that Kang Ji-won, 35, has been writing letters to prison inmates. It has become her accidental vocation.
Ms. Kang only wanted to reach out to a listening ear. In college she had majored in fine arts, but her heart was set on becoming a television script writer. She took classes at a private institution, and she and a few colleagues were supposed to write a sitcom for a cable network. But the cable company recruited a professional writer instead.
Ms. Kang’s disappointment was compounded by the fact that she had no boyfriend. Worse yet, she had to leave Seoul and move in with her parents in Jeonju, North Jeolla province.
“After I moved back, my parents would constantly harass me on marital issues,” Ms. Kang says. “I felt like I was going insane. My older brother and sister, who were married, wouldn’t leave me alone either.”
With every passing day Ms. Kang felt herself slipping into a deep depression. Her worries were so intense, she says, that “I was mentally and physically ill. I lost 5 kilograms (11 pounds) in just couple of days. I couldn’t eat or sleep.”
The remedy to her problems came from writing letters.
“I’m very timid and have trouble speaking my mind, so I started to put my emotions and thoughts into words,” Ms. Kang says.
At first she wrote letters to her friends, but she never received any replies. “It’s easier to say things over the phone than put your thoughts in words, so I guess my friends weren’t interested in writing,” she says.
“I thought a lot about my life, all the time,” she says, “and the conclusion that I came to was that I really didn’t want my life to continue as it was. I felt desolate.”
Desperate for a response, and for comfort and maybe a little encouragement, Ms. Kang placed an advertisement in a monthly publication: “Do you want to receive a letter on any day unexpectedly from someone?”
She got hundreds of replies; several were from prison inmates. While she tried to respond to everyone, Ms. Kang in particular wrote with feeling to four prison inmates. She wrote to the convicts not out of charity or to persuade them to repent their crimes; she just wanted someone to talk to and she liked their letters.
“I was very careful when I first wrote to the prison inmates,” she says. “I really had no experience and didn’t know what to do. I was only glad that I received the letters. So I wrote a short reply asking if they wanted to be friends.”
Since then she has stayed in touch with three inmates. The fourth man got out of prison and stopped writing. “I guess when they are released they don’t really want to think about their life in prison,” Ms. Kang says.
Two inmates are being held in Cheongsong, North Gyeongsang province; the other is locked up in Daegu.
In all her years of writing, Ms. Kang says that she has never asked an inmate of what crime they were convicted of. “I didn’t want to ask questions that might make them uncomfortable,” she says. “Unless they tell me I will never ask.”
She suspects that the convict in Daegu may have been imprisoned for murder because he once told her he had a life sentence. “I can only guess that such a heavy punishment would be for murder,” Ms. Kang says. The other two inmates, she believes, are also serving time for serious crimes, because the prison in Cheongsong is noted for housing criminals convicted of felonies.
The story of Ms. Kang’s letter exchange soon spread and several monthly women’s magazines and television programs rushed to interview her. News of the convict’s correspondent also spread among prison inmates across the country. Soon what started as a hobby became a movement. Women all across the peninsula signed up to correspond with prisoners, too. In the process People Who Write Letters, a nonprofit organization headed by Ms. Kang, was formed. It has grown to nearly 400 members.
Most of the members are mothers, but there are some college students and a few men.
“Prison inmates are happier when receiving letters from the opposite sex,” says Jung Duk-won, Ms. Kang’s husband. She met him through a friend in late 1998, and the couple exchanged wedding vows the following May.
Mr. Jung knew of his wife’s hobby before their marriage, but he didn’t mind. Mr. Jung, an artist and interior designer, helps his wife run the organization.
When Ms. Kang writes her letters, she usually talks about her own life. She writes about her husband’s family and her two children, but she never goes into detail.
“Light or heavy, they have committed some sort of offense that they are serving time for,” she says. “One can’t know what they are capable of, so we try to take a few precautions.”
Ms. Kang says that her letters are polite but never personal. She advises the organization’s members to do the same. “Once a college student became too personally involved with a prison inmate,” Mr. Jung says, “so we convinced her to stop writing.”
Nowadays, Ms. Kang spends most of her time organizing the letters ― those from prison inmates and those from the organization’s members. All the letters pass through her office, a little room in her apartment in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province. To conceal the addresses of the writers from the inmates, Ms. Kang and her husband put all of the letters in an envelope with her post office box as a return address. “Raising two children who are only 4 and 2 years old and organizing these letters, I have so little time,” says Ms. Kang. “Nowadays I have trouble finding time to write myself.”
People Who Write Letters, which is run mainly by Ms. Kang and her husband, is having financial problems and sometimes Ms. Kang wonders why she keeps plugging along. “Last year we had a deficit of more than 2 million won ($1,700), most of which was covered from our personal accounts,” she says. “We try to operate with the money we receive from our members but it’s not enough.” The couple hopes one day to receive steady sponsorship from a largecompany.
Still the couple continues to post letters to prison inmates. “It’s now more than a hobby. I now feel a sense of mission in what I do,” Ms. Kang says. “When my children get older, I will persuade them to write letters because that’s where you can actually feel the emotions of others.”
June 18, 2002
Because of the World Cup tournament, I didn’t know how time would fly so fast during the entire month of June. I was planning to write to you in mid-June, but I am glad that I have received your letters. As time passes, I think more about you, Ms. Kang, and my longing only gets deeper. It’s a clumsy expression but this is how I feel. And I will never lose such feelings. ...
I totally support what you do (writing letters) but I only regret that I could not do more. I want to be of some help. ...
Earlier you told me that your father had trouble eating because of his deteriorating health. I regret to hear that he passed away. ...
Your son must have grown a lot by now. ... I really want to see him. Ms. Kang, your cordiality is like a friend and a teacher, and the goodness I can’t express all in words.
in prison at Juan, Incheon.
April 26, 2000
Ms. Kang whom I wish to accompany for all time. ...
April, which makes fresh life challenge the dried-up emotions of people and makes the world stir from the beautiful lights, is slowly fading away. It feels like yesterday when the new millennium had just begun, but it is already May and I feel like I am within a dream.
Ms. Kang, I guess you’re happy and healthy as always. A letter is all I can send, but I wish to thank you as I did last year. Although my gratitude may be insufficient, I hope you will gracefully accept it with love.
When I think of the small love and interest you have shown me, I feel that it would not be enough even if I thanked you for all my life. ...
Nowadays I think that I live my life, although without any particular work, as if I don’t even have the leisure of looking up into the sky.
I wish your family happiness and health. ...
by Lee Ho-jeong