Monday, June 16, 2014

Brother One Cell - Cullen Thomas

In 1993, a twenty-something young American woman fresh out of college and looking for adventure smuggled a bag of drug money through a European airport.  The transaction went smoothly, without incident.  A few years later, the police caught up with her, and she ended up serving a brief prison sentence.

 Almost a year to the day later, a young American man of 23 also looking for adventure, went on vacation to the Philippines and sent a box of hashish to himself (under an assumed name) in South Korea, where he worked as an English teacher.  Unfortunately, the post office smelled a rat and he was arrested on the spot.  After a swift trial (compared to the young woman's long legal drama), he began serving a full 3.5 years in the South Korean penal system.

If you're a fan of the book and/or TV show Orange is the New Black, you'll recognize that brief outline of Piper Kerman's (Piper Chapman in the show) story.  The second story might not be as familiar.  Brother One Cell, Cullen Thomas's memoir of his time as a prisoner in South Korea, is also a great read, and in some ways, even more riveting because of the foreigner/culture shock angle.

Possession with intent to sell would have meant possibly serving a life sentence, so Thomas convinced the prosecutor that he was an addict and it was for his own personal use.  In reality, he had been hoping to follow someone else's example and parlay his 300 (USD) Philippine purchase into 10K worth of sales in SoKo.  As mentioned above, his trial wasn't a long drawn-out affair, and within two months of being arrested, he began serving his sentence in Uijongbu, a city approximately 15 miles from the DMZ.  His cell was 10 feet long, 5 feet wide and 6.6 feet high.  He had a thin sleeping mat and two blankets.  A porcelain trough served as a toilet.

Prison meals consisted of barley, rice, kimchi and soup.  The prison had a store where the inmates could purchase extras, including ramen, which somewhat supplemented their meager fare.  There were also some attempts at making homemade alcohol using bread, juice and a plastic container.  The sticky rice served to them proved to be a handy glue substitute.

Since Uijongbu is pretty far north, winter was harsh in the unheated cell block.  One morning, Cullen found a rat frozen in a wash basin.  Rats overran the place, so work detachments of 15 men would corner them and bludgeon them with brooms. [Note: I actually got to see this technique for dispatching rodents one summer day while taking a bus downtown.]  After several months, he was transferred to Daejeon, a city located an hour south of Seoul.

Like Piper Kerman, Cullen Thomas was lucky in having friends and family that were supportive and sent him letters, pictures and books.  As a prisoner, he was only allowed one hour a day with a pen that he had to return to the guards.  A pen found in a cell was considered contraband, and could mean two months in solitary confinement.  Writing about his case or about the prison was strictly forbidden.  Cullen got around this by making notes on the backs of letters sent to him.. Since the letters had already been inspected when they arrived, they were never looked at again during inspections or during his transfers.  Pens were finally legalized, but only black ink.  Blue ink meant time in solitary.

Prisoners included gang members, political prisoners, draft dodgers, a painter, and other foreign prisoners.  Among the foreigners was Big Green, a mentally ill American who had killed his own children (it is a testament to Thomas's fine writing that he makes the reader feel sympathy for Big Green), Billy the Kid, a Columbian emerald and cocaine smuggler, and Tracey, a Pakistani gang member.

Among the Koreans, Cullen got along fairly well. He had picked up some of the language before he was arrested, and soon became fluent.  He played basketball, taught English, and worked hard to fit into the Confucian hierarchy, which was even more pronounced in prison.  Because of his knowledge of Korean, he was able to dissuade inmates that were close to his age from speaking to him in ban mal, or informal Korean.  He was worried that others might get the idea he was a subordinate, making him a possible target for bullying.

Also reminiscent of Piper Kerman's memoir, Cullen Thomas found work a respite from the boredom of serving time.  In Daejeon, he got a factory job assembling boots and shoes used by riot police, for which he was paid 600 won (59 cents) a day.

One of the most bizarre recollections in Brother One Cell involves the homemade penis enhancements that some of the Korean prisoners would do on themselves.  Cullen had noticed many misshapen and tumorous-looking chajees, and the men were happy to explain how they achieved this look:  They would make small cuts on the head and the shaft and fill the cuts with Vaseline, little pieces of plastic, or the bristles of a toothbrush.  They called these altered members "sunflowers" and swore that it drove women crazy with desire.

Cullen Thomas was made to serve every day of his three-and-a-half year sentence.  On the last day, he was taken to the airport and deported back to the United States.  He hasn't been back to Korea.  Brother One Cell was published by Viking in 2007 and translated into Korean the following year.  Like Orange is the New Black, it's a gritty coming-of-age story without a shred of self-pity.


jenclair said...

I'm not sure I would want to read it, and yet I'm fascinated by your review, so...maybe.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Fascinating! Why no blue ink??