Except those that security officials use, the prison facilities are so poor it is almost impossible to imagine. The basic necessities and sanitary facilities are from an altogether more primitive age.
When I was put in prison, the cells were worse than a pigsty. The walls, ceiling and floor were plastered with a mixture of sand and sawdust dissolved in limewater. Here in North Korea it is called “samara” and is used instead of cement. Cheap, yes, but exceedingly weak.
Many times, prisoners couldn’t eat properly because chunks of “samara” fell off the ceiling or the walls into their food. When I was new there, I had the experience of getting bombed with “samara” chunks while I was trying to eat rice and soup. If I hadn’t mixed the rice with the soup, I could have just removed the chunks and eaten it anyway, but as it was the lumps were impossible to track down.
Still, “samara” couldn’t stop me from just eating it anyway; I was too hungry to give it up.
Even more agonizing were the insects; lice, bedbugs, cockroaches and fleas.
During holidays, prisoners joined a “lice catch” during the daytime. However, these creatures somehow discovered ways to survive; whenever we took our clothes off, the lice sneaked out and hid inside the myriad cracks in the ceiling and walls.
Of course, at night, they scrambled all over our bodies once again. The jet-black floor made it so difficult to find the hidden ones, while proposition cards, ten sheets of paper containing Kim Jong Il’s decrees, and a board full of regulations were the bases the bedbugs used to launch their attacks.
In the prison cell, the prisoners had to sit up straight all the time except when they were asleep. Eventually, where you were sitting up straight became where you slept. The cell was filled with swarming bedbugs, lice, cockroaches and mosquitoes all year round, which made it impossible to call it a living space. It always smelled of excrement because there was only one toilet, and it had did not flush.
When you have stayed long enough in a prison like that, you don’t notice the smell anymore. However, even if you are not aware of the smell of excrement, you still recognize other kinds of smell perfectly well.
Ironically, once in a while a so-called “sanitation inspection” was run over the prison cells, but the security guards, frowning and holding their noses, never inspected the cells properly. Then they would give false reports to the executives, claiming that they were providing a perfectly hygienic environment.
Of course, the foul odor on the prisoners didn’t go away even outside the prison cells. Sometimes prisoners would run into civilians outside the prison, and those civilians would turn their faces away and hold their noses as soon as they saw the group.
Very, very few prisoners washed their clothes once in 10 days or so, but most of the other prisoners never washed nor changed their clothes. Stinking was inevitable.
In the main area for around 1,000 prisoners, there was only one washroom of about 50 square meters. It didn’t have a basin, only a brick water tank. Each section was given 10 wooden bath tubs and the prisoners were supposed to draw water from the water tank and bathe with it. The bath tubs were poorly manufactured so water never actually stayed in them. It just slowly leaked away.
There was never enough water and time for all the prisoners to bathe either, so they just lined up and as soon as they got in the washroom they soaked their towels and clothing in water with which they wiped their hands and faces. If anyone took his time or soaked his towel in water twice, supervisors in the washroom gave him an occasionally brutal dressing down.
Ridiculously, no matter how many prisoners there were, each section was given a blanket per year and 7 to 12 pairs of shoes, padded clothes and underclothes per quarter. The security officials secretly took away half of the already miserably insufficient supplies, so the results were appalling.
The clothes were full of patches and the shoes were all worn out, exposing toes and heels. Occasionally prisoners were called to the security officials’ houses to do farm work or repair work for them. Each house had a beehive for honey, and the lagging covering the beehives tended to be the clothes or blankets that were supposed to be for the prisoners.
Security officials saw the distressing conditions of the prisoners every day at first hand, but they took away the necessities for prisoners anyway, to employ them as lagging on pigsties, dog kennels and beehives. They regarded us as of less value than their animals.
The only electrically operated item in the cell was a single light bulb. Its voltage was low; to all intents and purposes it was the same as a candle. When it was time for studies after dinner, we had trouble seeing.
In winter, when the stove was lit in the corridor between the cells, the smoke couldn’t escape so the air on the corridor filled with smoke. Every night, prisoners had to suffer stinging eyes and hacking coughs as a result.
Every security official’s dream position was in the Security Department. Back then when I was still in the Camp, the Security Department head’s name was Nam Byung Shik. He was in his late 40s, only about 5.4 feet tall.
Not only was the Security Department head a classified special investigator, but he was also a person in possession of a keen ability to see right through people; even the prison warden couldn’t get past him. I was investigated by him 3 times, and I still cannot forget those eyes.
He usually treated the prisoners gently, which was in itself unusual, but, when he was investigating something serious, he used coercion and sharpness that no one would dare face down.
And yet, when the investigation was over, he was smart enough to pretend to listen carefully to the prisoner’s difficulties, unlike other security officials, and from that he could subtly extract the information he wanted.
Security Department watched closely everybody’s actions in the prison, not just the prisoners, and punished them ruthlessly whenever anti-socialist or anti-Party behavior was caught. That is why even security officials and their families feared the Security Department head, calling him “The Gestapo.”
Though never, ever to their faces.