SUWON, Gyeonggi Province – For the 27-year-old man in a brown uniform and a tag with “Ga-92-4″ embroidered on the upper right corner of his shirt, this was no ordinary outing. For the first time in 15 months, Jeong Hong-gyu walked down a street not hemmed in by concrete walls. In the name of community service, he and a group of other select inmates were being rewarded with a brief trip to an orphanage to do some chores.
“It was nice to be out walking on the street,” said Mr. Jeong. “I felt like a free man.” With a clean-shaven face, a tidy haircut and cheery smile, he does not resemble someone with a criminal record. Never mind that he studied at Seoul National University.
His crime? A refusal on religious grounds to carry out military service, which is mandatory for all able-bodied Korean men. Mr. Jeong is a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect that forbids its adherents to serve in the military.
In recent weeks, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been at the center of crucial legal cases over conscientious objector status in Korea. In May, a Seoul district court ruled that conscientious objectors who based their cases on religious grounds could not be charged with a crime.
Last week, however, the Supreme Court upheld a different lower court’s conviction of a man who refused military service on religious grounds, calling for conscientious objectors to be sentenced to 18-month jail terms. In their ruling, six of the court’s 12 judges pointed to the country’s need for alternative service.
Mr. Jeong is one of 600 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are now serving jail terms for their stance. Those who refuse the draft outright are given an 18-month sentence, the minimum time to avoid being drafted again. Those who join the army but object to carrying a gun face court martial and are usually sentenced to two to three years in jail.
Despite the obvious difficulties of time behind bars, Mr. Jeong insists he’s doing all right. “I am fine. I am used to living life in prison. I anticipated it all along, even before I received a draft notice.”
All inmates are required to work one way or another, but having prisoners do chores outside the prison walls – even retrieve newspapers delivered outside the gates – is delicate since it provides an opportunity for escape.
Even mundane chores like picking up garbage or sweeping floors in prison offices can be sensitive because it offers access to confidential papers and computer files. In these cases, guards must normally monitor the prisoners to prevent such materials from slipping into the wrong hands.
But in Suwon and at similar detention centers across the country, it is often Jehovah’s Witnesses who are assigned to these jobs by top prison brass.
For instance, Mr. Jeong keeps busy these days cleaning such administrative offices at the Suwon detention compound, which consists of two large concrete buildings in a residential area of the city.
“Prison offices are places where one can manage to communicate with people outside if he tried,” said An Hyun, 26, whose three-year term at an Anyang, Gyeonggi province prison ended in July 2003. “Among all prisoners, only Jehovah’s Witnesses worked in these offices.”
Mr. An, now a senior at Seoul National University, taught other prisoners studying for exams to obtain a high school equivalency diploma while in jail in addition to his office-cleaning duties. Assignments like handling dangerous objects such as knives and carrying medications for prison doctors also fell to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Choi Jung-gwon’s three-year prison sentence in his hometown of Wonju, in Gangwon province, included a wide range of chores for prison guards and officials, including stints at the barbershop.
Though that may not seem unusual, it is for prisoners. As Mr. Choi explains it, the barbershop “had a lot of dangerous items such as razors.”
Most of the prisoners working as kitchen staff, preparing food for prison guards and officials at the Anyang prison, were Jehovah’s Witnesses when Mr. An was in prison.
Trusted by wardens
This contingent is often trusted by prison wardens to the extent that they are left to move about unguarded. “When we went in and out of the offices, nobody paid any attention to us,” Mr. Choi said.
Besides taking on security details, other chores which many Jehovah’s Witnesses were responsible for included distributing goods purchased by inmates and handing out prison supplies. Few of these conscientious objectors worked at factories as other prisoners did, according to Mr. Choi. And because they carried out so many duties considered vital to prison operations, they were accorded a significant measure of importance.
“Competition between prison officials to employ Jehovah’s Witnesses was very high,” Mr. Choi said. “Some officials even told me they were willing to transfer me to their office if I only said ¡®yes.'”
At least in Mr. An’s case, his responsibilities outlasted his jail term. “After I got out of jail, prison officials called me many times to ask about where some files were or even how to carry out certain tasks in a specific situation.
“The 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses in jail at the time I got out were just not enough,” he continued. “I recently contacted prison officials, and they told me that they were having a hard time because the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that jail had dropped.”
In the opinion of these former and current inmates, prison officials and guards shifted their own work to Jehovah’s Witnesses at times, even to the point of exploitation.
“An officer once threw his shoes at me and asked me to shine them,” said Jang Byeong-yun, 28, a senior at Seoul National University who served 18 months at a Cheongju prison.
Despite such complaints, the Jehovah’s inmates said most of their relationships with prison officials were on the whole good.
“Since getting out, I’ve gone back and visited the prison, and the staff always welcomed me,” Mr. An said, adding that he became quite close to one official in particular. “Later, when I finished my term, he asked me to tutor his son.” Mr. An stopped tutoring recently, when the boy’s grades improved.
As for relations with other prisoners, those interviewed said things were generally smooth. But there were some thorny moments.
Because of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ access to offices and freedom to move around unsupervised, less-privileged prisoners often asked them for favors, including some that Mr. An described as impossible to carry out.
The three favors most frequently requested were “bidulgi,” (dove) or forwarding memos from one inmate to another; “fishing” or collecting cigarette butts for reuse, and pilfering certain medications so that inmates could make themselves sick and have an excuse to get out of their cells.
When their requests were rejected, “other prisoners made light of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and criticized us for being inflexible,” Mr. Jang said.
Some bright spots
Spending two or three years of one’s youth in prison could certainly be a frustrating experience. But life was not as horrible as people might think, these men said.
Despite the hardships, there were some happy times inside the walls, according to Mr. Choi. “In winter, a heater was placed in the cell where we boiled instant noodles.”
Given their willingness to go to jail for their beliefs, it is not surprising that religion was an important component of their life in prison. Three times a week, adherents held an unofficial night meeting before turning in (Jehovah’s Witnesses call their prayer session a “meeting”).
Most followers were grouped in cells with other followers, though they also shared space with inmates serving time for various crimes
“Although the meeting was forbidden in principle, prison guards overlooked the fact that we were having a meeting,” Mr. Jang said.
It was not until last July that the Ministry of Justice allowed other less mainstream religions to practice in prison, after Korea’s National Human Rights Commission brought up the issue. Until that time, “only the practice of major religions such as Protestantism, Catholicism and Buddhism were allowed,” Mr. Choi said. “Priests, pastors and Buddhist monks came to prison to organize these religious gatherings.”
As they lived side by side with felons who had committed such crimes as burglary, theft and rape, these young men managed to convert some inmates. Mr. An’s record of achievement included two conversions – a three-time offender and a five-time offender born as an orphan.
“As an orphan, he had a lot of anger against the world,” Mr. An said. “He believed he was abandoned and thought that it was all unfair.” The three, who met when Mr. An was tutoring prisoners for their high-school equivalency exam, are still in touch.
Religion had been part of the family fabric of each of the four Jehovah’s Witnesses interviewed. Except for Mr. Jang, whose father did not practice the religion, all had two parents who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The draft issue also runs deep; Mr. Choi said his father served jail time for rejecting the draft.
Up to just a few years ago, most male Jehovah’s Witnesses who knew they were eventually going to jail took time off from college because they wanted to finish their sentence before embarking on their more intensive junior and senior years at university.
The number of Jehovah’s Witnesses serving time is dropping as more students are delaying graduation in anticipation of social changes that would be more favorable toward their situation.
Civic groups are planning to petition the government to approve a new draft law that would legalize other kinds of service as an alternative to military duty. Those qualifying would serve in hospitals, on environmental projects or other public-service projects, for a longer period than those in the military.
But opposition to such changes remains strong, with some worrying that people would take unfair advantage of it.
Despite being just three months away from release, Mr. Jeong does not have great expectations about life after prison. The same goes for other Jehovah’s Witnesses who have finished their terms. Because they are scarred with a criminal record, most Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t be invited to join major companies or the civil service.
“Most Jehovah’s Witnesses who went to jail don’t even dream of pursuing a professional career,” Mr. Choi said. He figured that most are self-employed or work as private tutors.
“I would be willing to serve an alternative sentence for an even longer period,” said Mr. An, who harbors the hope that conscientious objectors will someday be free of the burden of carrying a lifetime criminal record.