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Prison Tales

Breaking the Rules to Become the Foreman

Lee Jun Ha's Prison Tales 14.
 |  2009-07-14 12:04
Just like in wider society, people in prison who failed to observe their surroundings were apt to be dull, and always had to be in the control of others. One day I suddenly started to think about the position I was in, and how I could survive from such position.

Most of the cell heads were rich or high ranking people back in the real world. They didnt go through a lot of trouble to become cell head, and they couldnt understand what other ordinary prisoners felt.

No cell head could manage one whole work section alone. two or three people had to work together, and the fate of the section depended on how they went about it. A person leading the section beneath the cell head was commonly called a foreman, and since a cell head was merely a puppet of the management, the role of a foreman was very important. The 48 year-old Logging Section head appointed me foreman and wanted me to start out on my own.

At that time a lot of decent, hard working people had been released from the prison at once, so people who had been admitted just on or two months before or after me were unofficially competing with one another for the position of foreman.

Back then I could easily live by myself. When it came to labor no one could beat me. A lot of people trusted and liked me. But if I ever became foreman, I would be compelled to swear at people in order to maintain the work section and would then be hated by them. Prisoners suffering from hunger were always bloodthirsty. The smallest thing induced them to fistfights; those who didnt even have the strength to exchange blows spat at each other. It was chaos. That wouldnt be good for me. That is why I didnt volunteer for the position and decided to see what happened.

After thinking about it for several days, however, I was presented with an opportunity to create a justification for becoming foreman. I would do it by breaking the prison rules and earning the trust of others.

The story was that the prison finance officer had asked the security officer in charge of our section to send some prisoners to his house to construct a sewer. The security official ordered me to take three good men and deal with it.

I saw it as a good opportunity and brought three of my closest associates along. The finance officer told me to make sure that the other prisoners didnt run away, and occasionally came by himself to keep an eye on us.

During the work, those three people trusted me, and felt able to openly pick up the cigarette butts in the finance officers garden. Meanwhile, I pretended that I wasnt interested in the cigarette butts and just kept look out so that the others would not be caught.

Cigarettes, to prisoners, were practically money. They were that important. Starved people could exchange three cigarettes for a scoop of rice. Cell heads or people working in the kitchen gave the leftover rice for a cigarette, so for the prisoners, there was nothing better than cigarettes.

No wonder the three of them were looking at me strangely. I was not picking up any of the cigarette butts. Then, to their even greater surprise, when the finance officer disappeared elsewhere, I ran into the warehouse.

Most of the prison management secured their share of cigarettes from a large plantation of tobacco. They tied the tobacco on a rope to dry until late autumn, put it in a sack and placed the sack in the warehouse. My heart was throbbing and my face was blood-red as I entered the warehouse; nevertheless I took some tobacco from their stores, hiding it under my armpits and in my clothes.

The three prisoners had grown nervous when I went inside the warehouse, and looked highly relieved when I got out safely. After giving them a sign and passing the tobacco to one of them, I started looking out for another chance.

I was not able to bring out a lot; the finance officer could have come out any moment, after all. However, it seemed that he was not going to come out at all.

Oh, well, here goes!

I went inside the warehouse again and took as many as I could hide on my body. It was satisfying.

I never even imagined that our foreman would dare sneak into the warehouse, my subordinates agreed.

Thats what I mean. I was so anxious when he went in there and didnt come out for such a long time! The finance officer could have come out!

On the way back to the prison after finishing the work, they all chattered excitedly. In the rest room we weighed the tobacco. It weighed about 200g! I winked at them to show my trust, and hid the tobacco under the stove.

Later in the evening I hid some of the cigarettes in my clothes and headed for the kitchen.

Myung Hak and I had been seatmates when we were newly-admitted, so whenever we ran into each other we would exchange nods. When I arrived at the kitchen, he welcomed me and asked why I was visiting.

I missed you. Actually Ive caught a cold. Please give me some medicine if you have any.

Prisoners called cigarettes cold medicine.

Junha, since you are looking for cold medicine, I guess you are quite used to the life here already, arent you? Well Im also quite distressed that I dont have any of them.

So, with a wink I gave him the cigarettes I had under my shirt. He seemed pleased.

When the cell head ate, he turned a box upside down, placed his plate on it like a table and ate alone.

It was the same way throughout all the work sections. Work section members first sat in four lines and then divided themselves into two lines and passed the rice and soup to those sitting at the end of the line. No one could take his eyes off the food when passing.

When they gave me three scoops of rice, everyone looked at me suspiciously.

Whats this, Junha?

The cell suddenly grew quiet.
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