Thousands of South Koreans are turning to prison as a means of escape. Since 2013, more than 2,000 people have checked themselves into the Prison Inside Me facility in northeast Hongcheon—a mock jail imitating the mind-numbingly mundane experience of incarceration.
“Inmates” at Prison Inside Me have their phones confiscated and are issued with a blue uniform, a yoga mat, a tea set, a pen, and a notebook, according to Reuters. They’re forbidden from speaking to one another, and receive basic, bare bones meals including a rice porridge for breakfast and a steamed sweet potato for dinner.
All of this is voluntary, and a large number of the facility’s clientele is made up of office workers and students seeking a weekend away from South Korea’s high-intensity work culture. In a country where hours are long and suicide rates are high, it could be saving thousands of lives.
The average Korean employee worked a total of 2,027 hours in 2017, according to a survey from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—making them the third-longest working citizens behind Mexicans and Costa Ricans. It’s a hyper-competitive work and school culture that the Berkeley Political Review recently described as “lethally toxic,” and experts believe that it’s contributed to a high rate of stress and suicide in the country. According to a 2017 World Health Organisation report, South Korea has the second-highest suicide rate in the world, with an average of 28.3 people per 100,000 taking their own lives in 2015.
It was out of this pressure cooker culture that Prison Inside Me was born. Co-founder Noh Ji-Hyang said that the idea for the faux prison was inspired by her husband, a prosecutor who was often forced to work 100-hour weeks.
“He said he would rather go into solitary confinement for a week to take a rest and feel better,” she said. “That was the beginning.”
"I was exhausted physically and mentally but I wasn't brave enough to quit my job," Noh’s husband, Kwon Yong-seok, told Al Jazeera. "I didn't know what to do with my life. Then I thought about being in solitary confinement for a week. Deciding where I should go next would become a bit clearer with no cigarettes, drinks, human relations, a boss, and stressful work.”
Now hundreds of South Koreans are locking themselves up in six square-metre cells for periods of 24, sometimes 48 hours. There are no clocks, no mirrors, and just one small toilet.
“This prison gives me a sense of freedom,” Park Hye-ri, a 28-year-old office worker, told Reuters. “I was too busy. I shouldn’t be here right now, given the work I need to do. But I decided to pause and look back at myself for a better life.”
Park paid the equivalent of about $120 Australian dollars to spend 24 hours inside the facility—and she’s just one of many who are opting for this new, improbable form of mental health retreat. According to Noh, solitary confinement is nothing when compared to life on the outside. For some, it might be even be an answer to it.
"You are literally confined there which is the whole concept of the programme," she said. "But participants say they felt the greatest happiness and freedom here. Most of them were initially resistant because they were told it is jail. But after staying inside, they said it is not the small cell that is the prison, but rather the outside world."