After five months of life in the detention house, with all of its changes, I was swallowed up with scorn and resentment.
When I had first arrived there I was placed in cell no.3, where I was greeted by the faces of 8 other prisoners, all staring me out.
“Well now, look what the cats have dragged in!”
Perhaps he was actually being friendly, or just didn’t know what else to say, but in any case this was the first thing the inmate-cum-ringleader said to me. The banter continued;
“This bastard is a murderer. Why don’t you welcome him to the club?”
Just when I thought they were done talking, the “boss” sunk his foot into my stomach. I could hardly believe how weak his kick was. I just stood there looking stupidly into his face.
The boss was a bit stupefied at first, but then tried to ram my face into the corner of the room. With hardly a thought I instinctively lashed out at him, and in the process took down several other inmates who had jumped into the fray.
The boss, covering his face, let out a shrieking cry while two others whose heads had hit the floor and everyone else that had fallen to the ground could only hiss and cluck. Nobody fought back.
A prison guard, who had heard the commotion from beyond the bars of the cell, grabbed a metal rake for the stove, unlocked the door, threw it open and screamed at me to come out.
As soon as I was beyond the bars two guards jumped me and clubbed me to the ground. I buried my face in the ground and was kicked until my arms fell limp and I thought I would die.
The guards dragged me, half dead, to cell number four. The inmates in number four just laid me out on the icy stone floor like a corpse.
My whole body twitched with pain and as I rolled over onto the back of my head my body shook from the inside out with chills. I shook so hard that my teeth snapped together. Then a man, who had been sitting at the very back of the cell and whose name I would later discover was Chang Ho, came and draped the blanket he’d been wrapped in over me, without a word.
A little later, at the smell of bulgogi beef drifting in from the corridor, the inmates started to stir. All six of the block guards, including the one who had been standing on-post in front of the stove, had disappeared into their private quarters and started to drink. Gratefully then, the inmates were able to stretch their legs, lean against the walls and talk amongst themselves.
“How old are you?”
Chang Ho, the guy who’d given me the blanket, had approached me.
“19 this year.”
Chang Ho was 31 years old and shared the same family name as I. We were both Lees. Just as soon as we had introduced ourselves, I heard someone in a next cell calling for him.
“Chang Ho, where’s this new kid? You’d best kill the little pecker!”
“Gang Cheol—that’s enough. He doesn’t know anything here yet. Be patient! Let’s see.”
After hearing their chatter, I felt that the situation I faced was grim indeed, and so strange.
I wondered if what was happening could be real. Was I really in this narrow four-walled cell full of hardened criminals? Steel bars, toilet partitioned off by nothing more than a half-meter high wall of concrete, dirty wooden floor stained with grease, dark black high ceilings that seemed to have no end–images I’d only seen on film.
Chang Ho returned from the barred window of the cell where he’d been discussing me, and we spoke again.
“Don’t pay any attention to these guys—they just love to curse.”
But I hardly heard what he said. Instead my eyes had locked on to the dim lines and phrases written on the floors and walls of the cell.
‘Finally, tomorrow I leave this place! Day 324!’
‘Let see what happens when I’m free. Those sons-of-bitches!’
‘Curse this place suffer justice or fall’
The frustrations of the people whose freedom had been stripped away were scribbled here and there throughout the cell. Words were even etched in thick letters into the wood of the walls.
At almost midnight a voice yelled, “Sleep time! Everybody down and out!” Since I was the newest of the 12 in our cell, obviously I was going to be sleeping on the concrete.
Not knowing what to do, since no one showed any signs of giving up space on the floor, I just sat there until Chang Ho announced:
“Jun Ha! If you don’t sleep during sleep time everyone will have to stand and be punished.”
He pulled out a blanket he’d been using and tossed it to me. I wrapped the blanket tightly around me but the cold rising from the floor kept my teeth chattering throughout the night.
I was cold like that for some time, but I eventually fell into a light sleep. Then for some inexplicable reason my body began to feel really hot and itchy. I stood up and folded up the blanket and peeled off my clothes, to find lice covering my whole body.
“Why aren’t you asleep?”
Jumping back, I turned my head to find an agent adorned with a second lieutenant’s badge holding his hands behind his back and looking into the darkened cell.
“You, you just came here today? You’d just better lay back down and go to sleep!”
As soon as the agent was gone, I tried to start catching the lice. By the time I had caught over 100 lice, I was very tired. After I’d caught as many as I possibly could I wrapped the blanket around me and lay down just in time to hear a block guard come in and yell, “Rise!.”