Let’s face it, I’m a sucker for prison memoirs. Be they by former prisoners, guards or even prison librarians, I’m drawn to them like a moth to the flame. Therefore, when I stumbled across Cullen Thomas’ 2007 memoir Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons at the library a few weeks ago I snapped it up with little hesitation. After ignoring it for about a week, late one night I was unable to fall asleep so I cracked it open and began reading it. I was not disappointed.
Brother One Cell is story of Cullen Thomas, who as a somewhat aimless 20-something American wound up teaching English in South Korea. While there, he and his American girlfriend hatched an absolutely bone-headed plan to smuggle hashish into South Korea. When their stupid scheme backfired, he was caught (luckily his girlfriend was able to flee the country before being apprehended) and after spending months in jail he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a prison term of three and a half years. Along with countless Koreans serving time for murder, theft and racketeering (plus a few Jehovah Witnesses serving time for refusing to honor their mandatory military service) Thomas was part of a small community of incarcerated foreign nationals. Rubbing elbows with Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Nigerians and a few Americans, this felonious pack of expats struck me as a kind of UN rogues gallery.
While it might sound trite, what I probably liked the most about this memoir was Thomas’ ability to learn from this horrific experience and grow as a human being. For all its faults, he came away with a surprising degree of respect for the South Korean prison system. So high was this degree of respect that at one point near the end of his incarceration he felt thankful to have been imprisoned in a Korean prison as opposed to an American one.
Speaking of being thankful, this is a surprisingly good memoir and as result I’m quite thankful for my public library making it available to me. Had it not been for them, it’s doubtful I would have discovered it.