The BelieverSUNCHEON, South Jeolla
Poking through the gray earth around the dismal brick buildings of the Suncheon Correctional Institution here are clumps of yellow and purple pansies. The flowers look out of place near the bars, walls and formidable guard towers of this maximum-security penitentiary. Wherever did the pansies come from?
They came from a prison guard who got inmates to put them in the ground, not as punishment, but as a means of realizing there is hope in a world where none seems to exist.
In his dark-blue guard’s uniform, Sin Seong-sik has been a familiar sight in Korea’s prisons since 1975. Like the flowers, he provides a stark contrast to some very stark surroundings.
The Suncheon prison yard is typically filled with a heavy, brooding silence, but not this Saturday morning. An inmate in a pale blue jumpsuit suddenly grabs a young guard by the throat and, doubling his fist, threatens the corrections officer. The inmate is angry because earlier the guard had told him that visiting hours were over. Both the inmate and the guard shove each other and swear loudly -- until an older guard appears. To the younger guard, Mr. Sin says, softly, “Easy, easy.” To the inmate, he says firmly but calmly, “Come and see me this afternoon for counseling.”
The incident, which could well have turned ugly, ends quickly.
Sin Seong-sik, 56, has had his throat seized by inmates many times. Walking past rows of cells to his office later that Saturday, he says, “I’ve been doing this job for 28 years and it’s never been easy. But it’s never seemed harder than it does these days.”
The hardest part is trying to show inmates that he is not the stereotypical prison guard ― a merciless, evil thug ― as the job is portrayed in numerous Hollywood movies.
Still, the reality is that that stereotype does exist ― in prisons across the world. Last year, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea launched an investigation of the nation’s prisons, spurred by several cases in which guards reportedly mistreated inmates.
With a bitter smile, Mr. Sin says, “So many people on the outside think prison guards are demons. The truth is that we are not villains -- the inmates are.”
Lee Seok-jun, with the commission, says, “We’re not targeting individual prison guards. The overall conditions of prison establishments and facilities are what interests us. They have deteriorated.”
Kim Tae-wan, who is with the division of corrections at the Ministry of Justice, says, “One prison guard has to deal with five inmates on average.” There are about 12,500 prison officers on the peninsula, maintaining 44 correctional institutions ― prisons, detention houses and custody houses.
“Every year,” Mr. Kim says, “13 to 16 prison officers die on the job, mostly from overwork.”
Mr. Sin wonders, “Is it only the inmates who’ve got human rights? What about the guards? I have dedicated my whole life to prisons, but now I feel powerless. The commission staff should experience what it’s like to serve inmates.”
His words may sound harsh, but in truth Mr. Sin is Mr. Good. Han Jae-gyun, Mr. Sin’s boss at Suncheon prison, says, “Mr. Sin has always been willing to help out inmates, every single moment of his life. He spent his own money out of the scanty salary he gets, just for the sake of many inmates.”
Mr. Sin’s good deeds have not gone unnoticed. The Ministry of Justice has twice honored him as Korea’s prison guard of the year.
Located far down in the southwestern part of the peninsula, Suncheon Correctional Institution houses 1,000 or so convicts. Many have committed violent crimes, like murder, rape, assault, kidnapping.
The prison, surrounded by 3-meter (10-foot) high, 30-centimeter (12 inch) thick concrete walls, some topped with barbed wire, features massive, double-locked, seemingly impenetrable doors.
“This place is inescapable,” says Mr. Sin, who arrived here last May.
“When a prisoner is sentenced to serve more than 10 years, he goes insane for the first five years,” Mr. Sin says. He’s seen prisoners, bent on taking their lives, try to swallow everything from the metal spring of a ballpoint pen to chopsticks. Suncheon inmates have been known to bash their heads against cell walls or break windows in attempts to bleed to death.
Mr. Sin has great patience for the inmates but on occasion, he has lost his temper. “Inmates enjoy the most comfortable lives on earth,” he says. “They are fed, educated and protected by the taxes of the people. What more could they want?”
Still, he feels for the men of Suncheon. “It’s not easy to make prison inmates into completely new human beings. But I keep telling myself that these men were not born this way. After all, we are like one family under the same roof.”
As a teenager, Sin Seong-sik wanted to be a teacher, but soon gave up on the idea because of his inadequate English and math skills. After seeing his older brother become a police officer, he decided to follow that path. But when his brother was killed during an arrest, law enforcement became the last thing Mr. Sin wanted to do. Instead, he desired a quiet, stable life, and he chose to go into government service of any kind. The government assigned him to be a prison guard.
“I guess I’m somehow in between a teacher and a police officer, after all,” he says. “I give guidance to the inmates to make them better people.”
It wasn’t easy for him to impart this guidance, particularly at the start. Mr. Sin vividly remembers his first day at Mokpo Correctional Institution, in 1975. The glaring eyes and shaved heads of inmates scared him badly. Mokpo cons taunted the new guard so much he made up his mind to quit after only a year on the job. But he didn’t quit. “One morning, I woke up and thought that somebody has to do this job. Why not me? At that moment I decided I wanted to be the best guard that I could ever be.”
He was soon sent to the worst prison that he could ever imagine. In 1977, Mr. Sin was ordered to put in duty on Sorok island, a leper colony off the southwest coast.
The inmates there were society’s true outcasts -- banished not only for their crimes but for their appearance, which in most cases had led to their crimes.
The 20 years he spent at Sorok-do taught Mr. Sin many things, chiefly how to be with men who felt they were Korea’s throwaways. He learned compassion there, and how to deal with the angriest of individuals.
“For one thing, I realized that it’s no use to argue with inmates. I still sometimes wait for hours to let them cool down before I talk to them. And then they’ll listen. They’re almost always totally different people than they were two hours before.”
Watching over the 50 Sorok inmates helped Mr. Sin develop great empathy. It was at Sorok island that he started showing inmates that even behind bars hope can exist. At Sorok island, the inmates were mostly illiterate, never having been given the chance to go to school. Mr. Sin started a small class in the Korean language, teaching cons and buying them books to read out of his own pocket. One leper-inmate serving a sentence for murder is still at Sorok island, but is now studying for the college entrance examination.
He began a Bible class at Sorok island and one inmate who was finally released from prison is now an evangelist -- because of Mr. Sin. Another inmate there showed a talent for painting, so Mr. Sin found him an art teacher, whom he invited to the prison on a regular basis. Mr. Sin paid for everything, from the brushes to the lessons.
Many Sorok inmates write Mr. Sin regularly. Several cons who were abandoned early by their own parents call him “father.”
Away from the prison, Mr. Sin is the father of two sons in their early 30s. He raised them, he says, the way he treated inmates -- strictly but lovingly.
Mr. Sin never wanted his sons to wear the dark-blue prison guard’s uniform. “It’s not something you want your children to become,” he says frowning. And yet both his sons ended up in uniforms ― one is in the navy and the other is a police officer.
The National Human Rights Commission says that not only are Korea’s prisons in bad physical condition, but the employees are badly underpaid. When Mr. Sin started as a guard in 1975 he was paid 40,000 won ($33) per month, and stayed near that salary level for years, even as he reared his sons. Things improved in the late 1990s and his monthly salary these days is more than 1 million won. But he has to work 36 hours in a row, followed by as many hours off, which is physically challenging.
In 14 months, Sin Seong-sik will retire. “I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” he says. “I’m happy to get out of prison, but I feel that there’s a lot more I can do for inmates.”
Like the tiny pansy buds appearing around Suncheon prison, he still has some blooming to do, still has some comfort to offer men who have known little joy in their lives.
by Chun Su-jin