CHEONAN, South Korea — Foreign offenders and inmates in South Korea will be housed in a single dedicated prison after officials unveiled a 1,230-bed detention facility described as the world's first purpose-built prison for foreign nationals.
The Cheonan Correctional Institution for Foreign Nationals, located in South Chungcheong province, about 55 miles south of Seoul, encompasses 49 buildings with a combined 4.5 million square feet of operational space.
The government converted the Cheonan Juvenile Correctional Service facility into a dedicated foreigners-only prison in response to the growing number of foreigners sentenced to incarceration in South Korea.
During the 10 years preceding 2009, the foreign-inmate population increased more than 500 percent from about 350 inmates to approximately 1,800 inmates, according to official reports. The new facility features 238 double-bunk and 120 single-occupancy cells.
The prison service houses more than 1,500 nationals from more than 40 countries. Prior to the opening of the purpose-built facility, foreign inmates were scattered in facilities throughout the country, officials say. Some 600 offenders from 30 different countries have already been moved into the Cheonan facility.
In the past, foreign inmates often had difficulty living in close quarters with Korean inmates in the general population, with language barriers and cultural differences causing tension, officials say.
The Cheonan facility was developed, in part, to solve the problem of increasing tensions and incidents of conflict between native inmates and foreigners in local prisons, which lack the necessary staff and sufficient space to properly manage such groups, officials say. Within Cheonan, officials will house inmates of the same nationality in double-bunked cells where possible.
Many correctional officers are fluent in at least one foreign language, such as English, Chinese, Russian, Spanish or Vietnamese, which will improve communication between correctional staff and foreign inmates. The prison library is stocked with foreign-language books, and inmates are offered satellite TV programs in English, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.
The prison also offers educational programming and job training, with classes in Korean culture designed to help inmates in better understand the people, country and traditions of Korea. The inmate menu includes Korean and Western foods.
Corrections officials collaborated with university researchers to develop a facility and program model that would make it easier for inmates to adjust to live during incarceration and better assimilate into Korean society after release, officials say.