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Will We Reform Our Stupid, Evil Penitentiaries? A South Korean Prison, Aptly-Named 'Hope,' Points the Way

The Redeeming Example of the Somang Correctional Institution

Will We Reform Our Stupid, Evil Penitentiaries? A South Korean Prison, Aptly-Named 'Hope,' Points the Way

Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist. | (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

Of the many American crises, one of the most horrific concerns our increasing mass incarceration. This escalating tragedy is beginning to catch the attention of many in the media and in Congress.

Note the very recent cover stories from both the liberal-leaning Atlantic Monthly and the conservative-leaning National Review. The data on our American "justice" system are much scarier than any Halloween horror film — and increasing numbers of people are paying attention. Finally.

Since 1975 the imprisonment rate for men in our country has jumped from 0.2% of the population to 1.0 % — a multiplication factor of five (5) within just 40 years!

Thus, five times as many husbands are separated from their wives, five times as many fathers are separated from their children, and five times as many men are ripped out of their roles in their churches, their communities, and the economy. In four quick decades we have managed to rip five times as many men from their visions, from their education, from their jobs, from their hopes, and from their vital relationships.

Maybe some of them needed to be locked up, but this surge of incarceration is too suspicious. Mindless "mandatory sentencing" has certainly helped to feed this destructive process in a big way. Mandatory sentencing directly lobotomized any humane, wise discernment on the part of sensitive judges and responsible prosecuting attorneys. Not smart.

What is even more daunting and scary is that this huge, monstrous prison-industrial complex — generously supported by multiple billions of tax dollars from you and me — has virtually no benefit to show for itself, and tons of harm in its wake. With recidivism rates ranging from 75% or more all over the United States, any sensible citizen asks: What were our many departments of "corrections" doing while they had these prisoners within their charge and influence? 

Tragically, it does not take long for newly released prisoners to commit new serious offenses, after years "benefitting" from the "correctional" system. Within one year 43% are re-arrested. Within two years, 60%. Within three years, 68%. Within four years, 73%. And within five years, 77%!

What a waste of precious humanity! What multiple abuses of resources! What lost opportunities! What dashed hopes!

It would be nearly impossible to find any goodness created by our mindless and massively growing incarceration — or even our fruitless and incompetent "corrections." Instead there is a constant tsunami of harm, destruction, and evil — especially hitting the people, families, and communities who are the most vulnerable.

Even though the harmful effects of these policies are felt especially in African-American communities — and also hugely in Hispanic-American communities — it is not clear whether these harmful policies are racially driven. The epidemic of breakdowns in family structures in many African-American communities began measurably earlier than the surge of incarceration rates. Besides, mandatory sentencing was often supported by leaders of urban African-American and Hispanic-American communities — in "good-intentioned" efforts to increase individual fairness and community safety.

Moreover, these public policies that hugely increased incarceration rates and also made "corrections" departments dysfunctional — these misguided policies were broadly supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Therefore, let us use neither the "race card" nor the "partisan card."

Instead, our American incarceration policies are mostly a combination of stupidity and evil.

And the rank stupidity and profound evil of the contemporary American justice systems becomes especially clear when an excellent, dramatic alternative is discovered and proven to be hugely effective.

Let us FAST FORWARD to an unusual prison in South Korea named "Hope Correctional Institution" — called "Somang," the Korean word for "hope." The idea of Somang was conceived in 1995, and an official contract was made with the South Korean Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in 2003. The MoJ had a budget crisis, and it came up with a creative solution: Offer to fund a private penitentiary at 90% of the cost of its own per-prisoner budget. Only one private penitentiary was approved — Somang — and it remains also the only private penitentiary or prison in the entire continent of Asia.

Somang is operated by the Agape Foundation, a Christian charity created and supported by over 100 Korean evangelical churches — primarily Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Baptist. It houses 350 men, 68% of them convicted of violent crimes. The other 32% were convicted of other very serious offenses. Somang is both overtly Christian and completely tolerant of all religions.

Only 20% of the convicted men assigned to Somang are Christians, but all the convicts' lives are deeply affected by the Somang programs, shaped by the Gospel and the best of behavioral science. A convict sees the difference immediately, starting with a great welcoming party, complete with songs and food, when he first enters Somang. He feels immediately a redemptive presence when Warden Sim DongSub gives each new inmate a warm bear hug at his welcoming party, which happens on the convict's first day in Somang.

Perhaps unlike any other prison on earth, inmates of the Somang Correctional Institution are called by the names their parents gave them — not called by assigned prisoner numbers. And with each resident Warden Sim and his team develop an Individualized Program for Inner-Change and Restoration (IPIR), because they know that every convicted man — regardless of his beliefs or his guilt — is still an image of God, a person for whom Christ died and arose again.

While the South Korean government approved the Somang Correctional Institution and funds it in order to save money, Warden Sim and the Agape Foundation run Somang to save men.

The results are wonderfully startling. South Korea's 3-year recidivism rate is only 23%, exactly one-third America's 3-year 69% recidivism rate — perhaps because Korean sentences for even violent crimes are much shorter, bringing people back to their families and communities more quickly. However, Somang's 3-year recidivism rate is only 5%. No wonder the South Korean Ministry of Justice is thrilled with Somang's work and successes in men's lives!

At 5% recidivism, Somang has only 22% of the failure rate — 78% more successes — than the rest of South Korea's penitentiaries. Somang's recidivism is only 7% of America's much worse rate. In other words, Somang's 3-year success rate is 95% compared with the American success rate of 31%. This is a huge difference!

Proportionally, more than three times as many men are benefitted by Somang's correctional programs than by America's. Somang should now receive American and world attention as a vibrant exemplar of fruitful Biblical activism. We will write more on Somang and other exemplary correctional models in coming days.

In the process of correction, although only 20% of the convicted men who enter Somang are Christians, when they are released after 3 to 5 years of a restorative structure and an environment saturated with Christ's amazing redemptive grace, 80% have then become Christians. And these newly-released formerly incarcerated men are released with vibrant faith — and also great support and wise guidance to do well and obey the law.

Thankfully, the South Korea MoJ is not distracted by foolish American "political correctness," but instead boasts about Somang's exceptional successes. The government continues to fund it and fill it with convicted criminals. And when convicted criminals — Christians and otherwise — hear that they have been assigned to Somang, they are thrilled.

By the way, the most effective restraint for an uncooperative prisoner is the knowledge that he could be sent to any other prison. In its years of operation, only one prisoner was ever transferred out. All prisoners want to be in Somang and to cooperate in its programs.

Can Americans rise above the self-destructive idiocy of "political correctness" that imprisons strategic thinking? Can we spring free of PC's very corrosive effects on our people and policies? Can Gospel-believing people have the Godly guts now to demand our departments of "correction" be corrected? And that our systems of "justice" be held to a higher standard? When will we all have the courage to insist that our "justice" systems begin to treat convicts as images of God, people worthy of restoration?

Moving forward on these and other major changes to our "criminal justice" systems should become a chief passion for all who read this essay. This needed Biblical activism would be a timely way to express and live the wholeness of the precious Gospel, given to all.

And for our needed restorative strategies and labors, Somang now gives us hope!

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. He is a specialist in Biblical hermeneutics and ethics and a life-long advocate of Biblical activism.

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