“THEY SIT through sex education during the day, and drool over pornography magazines at night,” reported a South Korean ex-convict who was released from prison earlier this year. During his interview with SBS, a South Korean television network, the ex-convict readily described the perverted culture in prison cells wherein inmates including convicted child rapists enjoy all kinds of sexually explicit materials. This corrupt reality of South Korean prisons signifies the failure on part of the Ministry of Justice to implement its own regulations that prohibit pornography for sex offenders. Not only are stricter prison regulations required to ensure that pornography is actually banned for sex offenders, but more attention must be paid to cultivate an appropriate rehabilitative environment in which sex offenders can be successfully reformed before their release.
South Korean sex offenders regularly enjoy pornography
South Korean sex offenders easily access pornography in their prison cells, according to an exclusive in-depth investigation by SBS released in August 2017. The report revealed an interview with an anonymous prison guard, who disclosed a series of Japanese comic books that he claimed to have confiscated from a sex offender. Comprised of 12 books, the series explicitly illustrated scenes of rape and sexual intercourse with underage students in school uniforms.
The prison guard also told that sex offenders shamelessly share their experiences of rape with other inmates: “(As they read comic books like these) they proudly say things like ‘I raped someone before by drugging them with hallucinants, just like they do here. This stuff happens in real life you know, I’ve done it too.’”
Another interviewee from Kyungbuk Northern Prison (previously known as Chung-song Prison) gave SBS a more detailed account of the corrupt reality. This particular prison is notoriously famous for holding heinous sex criminals such as Cho Du-sun, especially known for his atrocious child rape of Na-young-ee (fictitious name of the victim widely used in the media) in December 2008. The ex-convict explained that, before his release, he had possessed four hard discs that contained about 3,400 pornography films in total.
According to the interviewee, inmates are able to watch pornography on their electronic dictionaries because they have memory card slots, like tablet PCs. Another current inmate from the same prison reported through a letter and parcel addressed to the Blue House (Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs) that the level of obscenity of such pornography films was considerably high, containing illegal contents such as child pornography and sexual abuse.
In response to such reports, the South Korean Ministry of Justice argued that it regularly conducts scrupulous inspections to remove illegal pornography from prisons, and that it discovered unauthorized possession of such prohibited materials only once in the past three years.
However, this statement vastly diverges from the testimonials of ex-convicts and current prison guards. Many findings show that South Korean sex offenders have illegitimate yet regular access to pornography during their time in prison, and that the Ministry of Justice is failing to control the phenomenon.
Why ban pornography for sex offenders?
The controversies surrounding pornography for convicted rapists had in fact caught the public’s eye prior to the recent findings. Three years ago, the infamous serial killer Yoo Young-chul raised public outrage when it was revealed that he had smuggled pornography into his prison cell. Though Yoo is especially known for his atrocious homicides, he had also been charged with sex crimes. Many critics called for stronger regulations on pornography for sex offenders.
The Ministry of Justice had responded by issuing an official document in December 2014 that prohibits the possession of “illegal publications” and “harmful publications” for all inmates. For sex offenders and juvenile criminals, “harmful publications for youths” are also prohibited, dictating an outright ban of all sexually explicit materials from those convicted with sex offence charges. However, two notable pragmatic difficulties render these regulations ineffective.
Firstly, people often misinterpret the first clause as that inmates can legitimately possess books or magazines that contain sexually obscene contents, as long as the materials are not labelled as illegal or harmful publications. Even though illustrations of rape or child pornography are subject to censorship in South Korea, the comic books that were shown to SBS indeed contained such scenes of violence. This perhaps indicates the need for more meticulous censorship by the Korea Publication Ethics Commission (KPEC), as the official agency responsible for reviewing all publications in South Korea.
Secondly, it is almost impossible to ban pornography for sex criminals while allowing it to others. Under the current mixed-cell system in South Korean prisons where various types of offenders are placed in the same cell, there is no feasible way to stop sex offenders from accessing pornography that their cellmates legitimately possess. Due to this systemic loophole, the Ministry of Justice fails to effectuate their pornography ban for sex offenders.
Yet skeptics of the current regulations on pornography question whether this kind of “enhanced punishment” for sex offenders is fully justified. Franciska Coleman (Prof., Yonsei Law School) disagrees with banning pornography for sex offenders whilst allowing other criminals to enjoy the “privilege,” unless the linkage between pornography and sexual violence can be firmly established. Even if the causal relationship were to be found, it would call for a blanket ban of pornography for all criminals as a preventive measure against sexual violence, especially in the backdrop of continuing sexual harassment within prisons.
However, the rationale behind the outright ban of pornography for sex offenders is in fact scientifically buttressed, according to Yoon Jung-sook (Researcher, Korean Institute of Criminology). She explains that the most notable triggering factor for sex crimes is a high degree of sexual deviance. The term refers to the degree to which one seeks sexual eroticism through abnormal or unacceptable means, such as pedophilia or rape.Most sex criminals upon examination are found to exhibit a high degree of sexual deviance, and thus are especially vulnerable to the influence of violent pornography. Such materials can actually have significant impact on their beliefs and behaviors.
“Habitual consumption of violent pornography exposes sex offenders who already possess high sexual deviance to abnormal sexual relationships,” tells Yoon. Studies show that frequent exposure to such distorted images reinforces erroneous rape myths*, which can strengthen the sexually deviant people’s perverted attitudes and behaviors towards real-life sexual relationships. Whilst the circulation of child and rape pornography is absolutely prohibited in South Korea, recent findings show that sex offenders have been regularly accessing such illegal materials in prisons.
Room for improvement: calling for genuine rehabilitation
The Ministry of Justice’s failure to effectuate its own regulations on pornography points to its lack of attention towards genuine rehabilitation of its prisoners. The Korea Correctional Service** does not take an active role to rehabilitate the criminals; instead, it seems to assume that its duty to supervise and control the convicts ends when the prisoners finish serving their sentences. This passivity is highly problematic, since ex-convicts who are not fully rehabilitated can commit re-offence in our society. In fact, the second offence rate of released ex-convicts reached 10% last year, according to the official statistics provided by the South Korean Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
Yoon suggests that, to reduce the likelihood of second offence for sex criminals, the Korea Correctional Service must deploy more specialized human resources in order to provide the convicts with sufficiently individualized psychotherapy. She criticizes that the generalized “education” for convicts in South Korean prisons often fails to reduce the unique risk factor of high sexual deviance exhibited by many sex offenders.
Instead, rehabilitative programs for sex offenders should primarily aim to reduce the sexual deviance level of the convicts. If the risk factor remains high, the danger of re-offence persists even after release. For example, many advanced countries such as Canada, United States and Sweden implement specialized rehabilitative strategies such as aversion therapy*** or other types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)****. Such psychological treatments are sometimes accompanied by chemical treatments in order to augment the treatment effects.
Yoon believes that the government should sponsor adequate research and evidence-based policies in addition to paying special attention to developing more effective rehabilitative programs and clinical treatments for sex offenders. To create an appropriate environment for genuine rehabilitation, the Ministry of Justice must also fully realize its function as an executor of its policies and regulations.
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The corrupt reality of South Korean prisons reveals that the Ministry of Justice has failed to construct an effective reformation program for sex criminals. Much public discourse on sex crimes tends to revolve around the retributive justice of the legal system, such as how many years a sex criminal should be sentenced. Yet, to reduce the second offence rate of sex criminals, more attention must be paid to the rehabilitative function of the South Korean punitive system.
*Rape myth: False beliefs about perverted and violent sexual relationships that encourage sex criminals to think and behave as if rape or other forms of sexual assault is justifiable
**Korea Correctional Service: A subsidiary body of the Korean Ministry of Justice that oversees national prisons and their rehabilitative programs
***Aversion therapy: A form of behavioral therapy that aims to stop a particular behavior, by inducing feelings of disgust and associating it with the behavior
****Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A psychological therapy that aims to manage mental problems that cause undesirable behaviors