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This American wrote a memoir of his prison experience in Korea and noted the difference between prisons there and in the US:


"Alone in his cell, Mr. Thomas struggles with shame, self-doubt, soul-destroying boredom and a long list of fundamental life questions that most people are too busy to address. He is afraid, lonely and angry. He cries and he rages. “I saw myself variously as an idiot and a clown, then an alchemist who might turn isolation into strength, then a cipher, a shut-out,” he writes.

His American citizenship gives him status. So does his language, which all Koreans, even the guards, are eager to learn. At the same time, as one of perhaps a hundred foreign prisoners in Korea, he is culturally isolated, confused by a language he speaks with difficulty and a system of cultural norms that baffle him.

Nothing much happens in prison, but the details are fascinating. As Mr. Thomas describes it, violence is limited to occasional scuffles, and the atmosphere of terror and intimidation in American prisons is absent. Although consensual sex occurs, usually for pay, rape is unknown. It’s no “Midnight Express.” In an unspoken arrangement, gangs keep order in exchange for privileges.

The physical conditions, however, are harsh. In winter, water freezes in unheated cells, and so does the ink in Mr. Thomas’s pen. The diet leans heavily on low-quality rice and kimchi, the famous Korean condiment of spicy pickled cabbage. Dirty electric razors leave Mr. Thomas with painful boils on his face, and by the end of his term he develops parasites.

He does not complain. Quite the contrary. “I didn’t mind having few possessions, and could see the value in being removed from the noise and consumption of the outside world,” he writes. He and his fellow prisoners, he reflects wryly, live a model lifestyle, “like progressive ascetics.”

Like Solzhenitsyn’s Denisovich, Mr. Thomas finds a grim satisfaction in work. He is happy to cobble shoes for the Korean riot police at the rate of 80 cents a day. Even better than the loose camaraderie and open spaces of the factory floor is the prison sports program. Each factory has a basketball team, and Mr. Thomas, a first-round draft pick, emerges as the Michael Jordan of the South Korean penal system. The rules combine the N.B.A. and Confucius. When Mr. Thomas is tackled on a drive to the basket, no one seems to regard this as a foul, but the players can see that he is upset. As a face-saving solution, he is awarded four free throws."

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