Cullen Thomas: Inside ‘Brother One Cell’

Travel Interviews: The book's author spent three and a half years in South Korean prisons. Frank Bures asks him about his travels and his love for the country that put him behind bars.

06.07.07 | 2:01 PM ET

imageIn the early 1990s, Cullen Thomas wasn’t sure what to do with his life. So he traveled to a place where a lot of Americans were going, a place where they were desperate for English teachers. In South Korea there was plenty of work.

“Whereas in New York,” writes Thomas in his new book, Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons, “I felt as though I had few good options and saw few inviting prospects, in Seoul, somehow almost everything and anything seemed possible. In the early to mid-1990s, South Korea became the eleventh largest economy in the world ... [T]he country was waking to a new dawn. Seoul was exploding with energy, and you could feel a wild, entrepreneurial fervor on the streets. There was this sense that things were unrestricted, without clear rules, there for the taking.”

Those rules, however, became clear soon enough. On a trip to the Philippines, Thomas decided to try something others he knew had done: He bought a kilo of hashish and mailed it back to himself. He got caught and spent the next three and a half years in South Korean prisons, pacing in his tiny cells, enduring cold nights and freezing baths, eating blood soup and kimchi, and watching rashes and boils spread across his body as he thought back on the events that led him there. “Like many of the other foreigners,” he wrote, “I fooled myself into thinking that I could operate alongside Korean society and yet not have to answer to it.” Frank Bures asked him about his experiences and the lessons he learned via e-mail.

World Hum: You write in “Brother One Cell” that before you left for Korea you felt like “Wonder was everywhere you looked; the harder you looked, the more of it you found. I didn’t grow out of that; I kept on believing I could find something extraordinary out in the world, an adventure of my own.” Do you still feel that way?

Cullen Thomas: I do still feel this way. When I think about what I want to do with the rest of my life, it’s to have adventures and write. Authentic experiences are the things that will stay with you. I can’t think of anything greater. I’m still seeking that wonder.

Have you traveled much since you got back from Korea?

I haven’t. Not by design. I’ve been back to Spain and to Jamaica for a friend’s wedding. But now that my prison book is complete and I’ve honored that experience the way I wanted to, I’m eager to go abroad again, maybe even to live for a time. It’s been too long.

How has your experience changed how you see other countries, or how you travel?

I’m not as stupid or reckless, of course. I’m more aware. But my time in South Korea only deepened my appreciation of other cultures, histories, languages.

How so?

I grew to understand more of the Korean people’s legacy of shared suffering and strength—their motivations, insecurities, passions. Through this, it’s easier for me to keep in mind that every race and nationality has this deeper story. Also, because we were forced to live the Korean way in prison, I’m more pliant in general, I think, more adaptable and tolerant when it comes to other cultures. 

When you go somewhere, do you find yourself wondering about the laws and prison systems?

I do. I think it’s only natural. Going to prison isn’t a recommended way of achieving immersion in another culture, of course, but it is a trenchant and revealing one—just as Dostoyevsky famously said. A country’s laws and prisons can tell you quite a lot.

Like what?

Well, they reveal value systems and morality; ideas of punishment; different takes on how to reach a man; how to deal with fractious or dangerous members of society; how a wrongdoer should be treated; ideas of justice, revenge, redemption. As tawdry and squalid as they are, prisons are also places of epic human drama, and although they’re quite similar the world over, the devil, as they say, is in the particular details.

You write that the other foreigners you met in Seoul seemed like they were misfits back home. Was that something unique to South Korea?

I don’t think so. They were an odd lot, and I think many expats, travelers, people who seek out wildly varied experiences, fit the description. It’s a very positive thing at the same time.

I noticed you wrote some stories for the newspaper in Seoul. Did you want to, or have plans to be a writer when you were in South Korea?

I definitely did, and Korea gave me my start. In Seoul I joined a writer’s group run by a lofty thinking German (I recall that he loved to use the word “text.” Everyone had his or her “text.” This kind of legitimized the whole enterprise.) And I got paid for my writing for the first time. Korea helped to make me a writer.

Despite your prison time, you still seem to have some fond feelings for South Korea, if that’s the best word. How do you think those feelings might have been different if you hadn’t been arrested?

I always say that I have a lot of love and respect for Korea. And I’m sure that if I hadn’t been arrested I wouldn’t have stayed in the country as long as I did. I wouldn’t have learned as much of the language or the history; wouldn’t have gotten to know the place as well, as intensely. This is one reason for why I’m grateful for the experience. As hard as it was, it taught me and showed me so much.

Aside from the obvious—don’t mail yourself a kilo of hash—what advice would you give to travelers living overseas, who might not know all the laws?

Travel smart. There was a sign in Taejon Prison, where I spent the last two years and nine months of my term, which advised, “When faced with an opportunity or advantage, weigh it’s righteousness.” I think this is sound advice.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at

1 Comment for Cullen Thomas: Inside ‘Brother One Cell’

Matt Elzweig 07.09.07 | 11:56 AM ET

Reviewed this book in the most recent issue of Our Town downtown (community paper in NYC):

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