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Prison Tales

Bitter Memories

Lee Jun Ha's Prison Tales 22.
 |  2009-08-24 09:46
I lived among the powerful cell heads and foremen at the prison. As a result, I got to know all the shocking incidents in other sections, the viciousness of the security officials and the reality of the 2nd and 4th branches. If I were an ordinary prisoner, I wouldnt have known about the small things going in other sections. Here in prison, even if you have old friends in other sections, you cant freely visit them without the permission of a section head or foreman. In any case, ordinary prisoners were not interested in other peoples business at all; the only thing they cared about was eating.

I saw, heard and felt many things at Jeongeo-ri Prison, and I consider them all life lessons. I ruthlessly excluded things I thought were not right; things I thought were right, however, I learned and made mine. I think these things became the great foundations of my present life here in China. What I learned first at Jeongeo-ri Prison was the cruelty of having to step on others in order to rise. Surely atrocity is not an innate characteristic of all human beings. At the prison, however, the first thing that comes to mind is this: For me to survive, you have to be my stepping stone. And as time goes by, if this cruelty transforms itself into something a little more sophisticated, you become a cunning, inhumane person. So prisoners can be classified into two groups.

Those who belong to the first group are never influenced by the bad atmosphere of the prison. They follow the same values and lifestyle they once practiced in society and understand the pain of other people who are suffering under much more difficult conditions. They help these people relieve their psychological and physical pains. These people, when released from prison and sent back into society, overcome the shame of their incarceration and live their lives to the fullest, to the point where others may rightly envy them.

The second kind of people takes the dirty and immoral values learned in prison as a framework for life. They, of course, live an unhappy life. Most of these people do not overcome the criticism and mocking of the public, and they usually end up back in prison. The reason why prisoners experience this vicious circle lies in the educational experiences of a prison. Life in prison does not help prisoners to reflect on their sins; instead, it turns normal people into violent and sly beasts. No matter how hard you work, the problem with eating is never solved. Many prisoners resent their wives or family members who cannot pay them many visits, and even when they are released they cannot let go of all the resentment easily. Employers do not hire them; they just keep pushing them away because they are ex-convicts; this causes many to turn to drink. Eventually, these people commit another crime and go back to prison all over again.

One of the second group was Kwak Man Ho. He was 33 years old when he was convicted of fraud and sent to prison for the third time. His only redeeming quality was the gift of the gab. His personality was atrocious. For example, almost a year after he was admitted his mother paid her first visit to the prison. After dinner, I saw Man Ho come back with the Visiting head. Even from a distance, it was clear that the Visiting head was fiercely swearing at Man Ho. This was surprising, since the Visiting head wasnt so much of a talker, and his reputation among the prisoners was relatively good.

Son of a bitch! You are not even human! How could you say such thing to your mother?

With this usually gentle man getting mad as hell, I concluded that Man Ho really had done something wrong. I approached and asked what was going on.

You know what this son of a bitch said to his old mother? I was right there beside him when he said, Hey, old lady! Why are you here so late? Ive almost starved to death. His mother, however, still said something like Oh, you have? I knew how things have been so difficult for you, but I was too tired, and thats why I couldnt visit you so often. I sold 300kg of corn I harvested, and tried to calm him down. Then this son of a bitch just went Oh, this cunning old lady! Dont come to visit me anymore! Son of a bitch!

He was furious. The moment I heard it I was pissed off right away. I just couldnt bear it, so I kicked Man Ho, who was standing there with ten kilograms of corn powder, in the face. I felt as if it was my mother who he had cursed at. His mother, who would go home with a broken heart, was in my mind. He had his head buried in the ground, his nose bleeding, but I kicked him once more anyway.

But it got worse. When I got back to the cell, everyone was having dinner. Almost at the end of dinnertime, Man Ho came back. The cell head asked him.

Hey, are you going to have your dinner?
Yes, sir. Ill eat because Im not full yet.

When we were lucky enough to eat food brought by visitors, we always gave our share of dinner to other prisoners. It was an unwritten rule, indeed. So the other prisoners were not impressed, and glared at him fiercely. Nevertheless, following the prisons rules, there wasnt anything we could do about it, not even our cell head; with our mouths zipped, we ignored him. When dinner was almost over, the Visiting head opened the window and called me over.

Jun Ha!
Whats up?

You know, that son of a bitch finished off four kilograms of corn powder all by himself! I told him he couldnt eat it there, but the secretary came in and he begged to be allowed to eat. The secretary asked how much he would eat, and he said he could finish about four kilograms. And when the secretary warned Man Ho that if Man Ho couldnt finish it, he would give the rest of it to those suffering from malnutrition in Man Hos section, he just went ahead and finished it all right on the spot.

I took a glance at Man Ho, who was behind me, stuffing his mouth with the last scoop of rice. When his eyes met mine, I just wanted to beat the animal up in order to relieve my fury. When dinnertime was finally over, I called him.

Hey, Man Ho!
Yes, sir.
Come here!
Yes, sir.

The very moment he stood up, he suddenly vomited everything he had eaten a few minutes ago. People who were bombed with his vomit started kicking him, and I shooed him away because it was way too dirty. I didnt even want to talk to him anymore.

It was 2 oclock in the morning when Man Hos stomach woke not only himself but the whole section. He was moaning so bad, his eyes were rolling and he was convulsing.

Logging Section! Logging Section! Hyun Cheol shouted out and, hearing it, a drunken guard, Jong Hak, yelled back at us.
Why the hell are you shouting! I cant sleep! Damn you!

Jong Hak came into the cell, examined Man Ho, called two clinic doctors and took him out.

That day, Man Ho was taken to a hospital in Hoiryeong and operated on. The next morning, the clinic doctors told us that he was suffering from acute stomach cramps, and the amount of food pumped out of his stomach filled a couple of basins. I couldnt possibly believe it, but all the clinic doctors and the sentries who had taken him to the hospital said it was one big bucket, so I had no choice but to believe it. They say a human stomach really stretches well, but it surely was amazing. Later on when I told my mother and friends about him, no one believed me. Because of this incident, my impressions of Man Ho became so bad that from that moment on I hated anyone who even had the same name.

But he was lucky, I guess, because that day he was released from prison due to his self-inflicted illness. However, after a year and three months, he was back in Jeongeo-ri Prison. With everything that had happened, he should have lived his civilian life quietly. But no, it wasnt enough for him to be criticized by everyone in his village for beating up his mother; he was caught once again for fraud. Either way, for some reason, Man Ho was released again after just six months. He probably bribed the security officials.

However, six months later he was admitted to Jeongeo-ri Prison yet again. This time was fraud again. When he was first admitted to prison he had to serve only six years, but upon his third offence he was sentenced to ten years. He was sent to the newly established Third Farm section. He was suffering third degree malnutrition, just about to die. He is, truly, a pitiful person. If he is still alive, I hope he has learned to care for his mother and family and become an ordinary person, doing his best and keeping out of trouble.
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