Chained and segregated in Korean prisons

Kim Soo A, Urgent Appeals desk, Asian Human Rights Commission

On 23 May 2002 Mr Bae, 34, committed suicide in a disciplinary segregation cell at Busan Penitentiary. At the time of his death, he had already been in solitary confinement for four months, with four more months of such confinement ahead. Prison officers had sentenced him to a total of eight months segregation on four different accounts of bad behavior. In addition, at the time of his death he had been kept chained and handcuffed for over 100 hours. During his four-year imprisonment, he had been disciplined 15 times and had been in solitary confinement for over two years.

Many cases of inhumane treatment and punishment of prisoners have been reported on by human rights organizations in the Republic of Korea. It is not surprising that during its inaugural year (2002), 30.9 per cent of human rights violation complaints received by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) related to detention facilities and the abuse of disciplinary power and tools of restraint. Over the last ten years, on average 8¡V9 prisoners have committed suicide in solitary confinement annually, and over a hundred such prisoners have attempted suicide while in segregation cells. Additionally, about 22 prisoners die every year from neglect. Although prisoners in Korea have been systematically denied their basic human rights, the public has been indifferent to their plight as they are isolated and perceived as socially undesirable.

The practice of consecutive solitary confinement in Korean prisons has been of particular concern to human rights groups. Prison authorities commonly use segregation cells to discipline inmates. Under article 46(2)(5) of Korea’s Penal Administration Law, the period of solitary confinement must be limited to two months. However, in reality prison officials have routinely imposed consecutive periods, thereby effectively isolating prisoners for whatever period they see fit. Professor Kwak Nohyun, a former member of the NHRC, has described the practice as follows:

Once placed into disciplinary cells, Korean inmates are prohibited from going out for physical exercise, meeting family and friends, reading books and newspapers, writing letters or petitions, watching television, and purchasing goods from canteens. In short, disciplinary segregation  cells are the highest security confinement within prisons… The unrestricted practice of consecutive segregation periods results in extreme cases of indefinite deprivation of sunlight and speech, amounting to slow murder. (‘The National Human Rights Commission of Korea: An assessment after one year’, article 2, vol. 1, no. 6, p. 50)

Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Korea is a party, states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. General Comment 20 on this article notes that the prohibition of torture and ill treatment, “Relates not only to acts that cause physical pain but also to acts that cause mental suffering to the victim [and] prolonged solitary confinement of the detained or imprisoned person may amount to acts prohibited by Article 7.” The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which Korea has also ratified, likewise forbids torture and the infliction of severe pain or suffering. Therefore, the practice of consecutive solitary confinement is in violation of the ICCPR and CAT.

One of the problems with placing so much disciplinary power in the hands of prison authorities is that it is used without discretion, often being imposed for petty violations, sometimes as a means to ‘get even’ with prisoners. Research conducted by a Korean human rights origination in 2002 suggested that in the majority of cases where prison authorities resort to disciplinary actions, they use solitary confinement.

The case of Mr Goh, a prisoner at Cheongsong Penitentiary, is indicative. On 30 May 2002, Mr Goh, in his mid-30s, hanged himself in a disciplinary segregation cell. He had been there for all but 55 days of the year he had been in prison. Ten days after he finished his first two months segregation period, the prison officers imposed another two months. While in the cell, prison officers handed him three more counts of bad behaviour, amounting to another six months. Two weeks after he finished that eight-month period, he was again sentenced to a further two months in solitary. He finally committed suicide during that period. He was also chained and handcuffed for weeks at a time while in isolation. Mr Goh was locked away for nothing more than minor infringements, such as uttering curses, kicking doors and talking with a prisoner in the next segregation cell. He had a record of mental disorder but he received no psychiatric treatment, let alone a medical checkup, during his imprisonment. Moreover, he had previously attempted suicide while in prison.

Like Mr Goh, many prisoners are also physically restrained while in solitary confinement. Excessive use of chains and handcuffs can irreparably damage a prisoner’s psychological and physical health. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that, “Instruments of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains, irons and straitjacket, shall never be applied as a punishment.” Despite this, prison officers in Korea typically use such devices for this purpose.

One prisoner who experienced extreme punishment with instruments of restraint was Mr Jeong Phil-ho. Mr Jeong, 40, was restrained with leather belts and handcuffs for 466 days, from 8 March 2000 until 18 June 2001, in Gwangju and Mokpo Penitentiaries. In February 2000, he escaped from the Gwangju District Court during his trial, and injured a prison officer. On March 7 he was re-arrested. After he was returned to Gwangju Penitentiary he was handcuffed and restrained with leather belts. He was kept bound for 26 days without break. After the initial period, he was untied only once or twice a week. He could not freely wash, eat, sleep or carry out any other normal human activity. Even after being transferred to Mokpo on 2 April 2001, he was kept bound in leather belts and handcuffed. When questioned, prison officials said that they restrained him to prevent escape and self-injury, and claimed that their actions were legal. However, human rights organizations suspected that the prison officers punished him as revenge. Mr Jeong submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court and the NHRC. The NHRC could not proceed with the case, on the technical ground that it is before the Constitutional Court, however it submitted a written opinion to the court to the effect that

1) The continuous use of restraining devices not only breaches criminal law, but also is unconstitutional.

2) The use of leather belts to bind the entire upper half of an inmate’s body amounts to torture.

Prison officers also segregate prisoners without considering prisoners’ physical or mental health, even though the Penal Administration Law notes that prisoners in solitary confinement must receive medical checks. Mr Seoh, 37, committed suicide in a disciplinary segregation cell at Andong Penitentiary the day after he was handed 40 days in solitary confinement, on 1 May 2003. Fifteen days earlier he had inflicted an injury on himself in an argument with a prison officer. The prison segregated him knowing full well that he had a strong possibility of self-injury or suicide, but did nothing to prevent it.

This June, after Mr Seoh’s death, the new Minister of Justice, Ms Kang Kum-sil, instructed prison officers to cease the practice of consecutive solitary confinement. While this was a good step, it will only be of use if followed by amendments to the Penal Administration Law, to bring it into line with Korea’s international obligations. It must also be accompanied by strong and speedy prison reform to ensure that prison officials recognize the human rights of prisoners. On August 27, the Asian Human Rights Commission issued a statement (AS-29-2003) recommending that the Ministry of Justice

  1. Outlaw consecutive solitary confinement and limit the use of solitary confinement to the most extreme circumstances.
  2. Establish concrete and objective guidelines for determining the period of solitary confinement.
  3. Stop the use of chains and handcuffs as a punishment.
  4. Allow inmates to engage in activities that would connect them with the outside world during solitary confinement.
  5. Assess and constantly monitor the physical and psychological health of inmates under solitary confinement.
  6. Create an independent working group to examine and monitor prison reform.
  7. Educate all law enforcement personnel on the international standards for treatment of inmates.

The most expedient way to achieve the above would be through explicit implementation of the CAT in domestic law. The Minister’s first step should be followed by further progress in this direction without delay.

All people deserve that their dignity and human rights be respected. Prisoners are not an exception. Human rights apply to all people regardless of nationality, race, religion and social status. Indeed, the civility of a people can be measured by its treatment of the most marginalized and defenseless. When prisoners in Korean jails are maltreated, it is not only their dignity that is at stake: the entire Korean society is degraded.