This story is presented as told to the author and is shared with the permission of the interviewee.

When Lyong left North Korea for the freedoms of America, he never saw jail in his future. Now he found himself strapped into a restraint called a turtle suit for his own safety.

The jail’s interpreter had asked, “Do you want to harm yourself?”

“I don’t know,” Lyong answered honestly.

Two officers strapped Lyong into the turtle suit: a large man with eyes like dark pools of oblivion and a waspishly thin woman who smelled like an ashtray. Neither spoke. The woman covered Lyong’s face with a spit guard.

Later, Lyong would understand one word from the conversation around him. Doctor.

Hours passed. Lyong was on suicide watch.

Upon arrest, the police officers had flashed their badges. LMPD: Louisville Metropolitan Police Department. Lyong instantly froze up. The North Korean men who’d beaten and jailed his father in front of him when he’d been a kid had been police officers, too. Lyong’s father had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a North Korean jail and died halfway through his sentence.

When the LMPD interpreter asked Lyong over the jail’s speakerphone, “Do you want to harm yourself?” her accent and pronunciation—South Korean—had served almost as much of a barrier as the enmity between their two lands.

Lyong feared the officers every bit as much as he feared being jailed.

“I didn’t know American law, the legal process, or about my right to remain silent,” Lyong said, “but the interpreter’s voice was the only familiar thing about that horribly foreign situation.”

Lyong’s “doctor” was a man who visited him once a week, charged $3.00 per visit, and never spoke to him. Lyong spent two months on suicide watch before being released to general population (GP) by the silent doctor.

“Day and night passed by in a blur,” Lyong said. “There were no clocks or windows. No interpreter. I was banished to general population and couldn’t understand anyone.”

North Korean Refugees Kentucky Jail Stay
Illustration by Michelle Garcia

JAIL (n.): a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody
~ from Latin root word cavea, cage. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

While in GP, Lyong kept track of time by following the dates on his mail, the television shows the other incarcerated people watched, and the days when jail workers delivered his canteen, purchases from the jail’s commissary store. On those days, as everyone’s stomachs growled to be heard—especially those who couldn’t afford canteen goods and had to rely on the three pitiful meals a day the jail served—Lyong always thought of the crime his father had committed all those years ago. He’d stolen a government cow and used it to feed his family and neighbors.

Now Lyong’s canteen was being stolen from him. Every trip to the restroom, every time he left his cell to use the shower, he’d return to find something missing.

“A friend of mine sent me a Korean/English dictionary. Seven thousand words,” Lyong said. “I studied the words. Sounded them out. Listened. I had to do something about the wall of incomprehension.”

Lyong found his fellow incarcerated people watching his every move. They imitated him as he spoke on the phone, made fun of his inability to speak their tongue. A miscommunication with the jail’s case worker led to Lyong’s use of 10 stamps on letters to Korea when three would’ve sufficed. Distrustful looks because of his missing canteen led to altercations. Lyong used his dictionary to make sense of the names others called him: Gook, Slant Eye, Dog Eater, Cat Cooker, Shrimp Fried Rice.

“I’d answer to Shrimp Fried Rice,” Lyong said, “like it was my actual name. But then I found out what Cat Cooker meant. I got so angry. I remember yelling, ‘Cat Cooker, no! Eat food. Me!’ I didn’t know grammar rules then.”

Lyong soon tired of the mistreatment and thievery. He sought change. He took his few meager remaining possessions (his dictionary and letters; his cellmates had stolen everything else, including his thermal underwear) and stood by the cell door, refusing to move.

“It took years before I’d learned enough English to read the write-up I’d received that day,” Lyong said. “I was thrown in the hole [solitary confinement]. The guys in the cell had told the officers I’d been gambling and lost. That’s why I wouldn’t leave the door.

I couldn’t tell my side of the story. The officers knew I couldn’t speak English, and they didn’t care either.”

In the hole, Lyong devoted himself to two things: learning English and deciphering the same three words he’d hear cried out by the other men locked away in the hole. HOME. HOPE. LOVE.

“HOME is pronounced jip (like jeep),” Lyong said, sounding it out to teach me the pronunciation. “HOPE: verb, to cherish a desire with anticipation. Pronounced hui mang. My mother would end every letter with the word LOVE. Sa rang. Every person in jail wanted the same things as me. Only I couldn’t go back to North Korea. It wasn’t HOME anymore.”

Eventually Lyong would be moved to a better cell with people who didn’t seek to use his being Korean against him. He even found someone to practice his English with.

“Everyone watched The Maury [Povich] Show,” Lyong said. “Whenever it came on, everyone in the cell would gather around the TV. When it came time for Maury to read aloud the paternity results, they’d all look at me as I yelled out, ‘You are NOT the father!’”

Lyong picked up enough English to fit in and be accepted by his fellow incarcerated people. Though they all faced different circumstances, they all longed for the same three desires. Home. Hope. Love.

“While trapped in the turtle suit and confined to solitary confinement in the hole,” Lyong said, “the uncertainty of what would come next terrified me. I almost gave up on life entirely. If it weren’t for the fact that I’d soon come to realize that everyone around me was suffering, that I wasn’t alone in my pain and confusion, I might not have made it through at all. I owe my life to the friends I made in that jail. The bullies and thieves enraged me and gave me something to fight for. The loneliness made me appreciate the company of others, and the communication barrier taught me to look deeper than words. Though miserable, I found myself appreciating all I’d lost. Our shared silences spoke volumes.”

About Derek R. Trumbo, Sr.

Derek R. Trumbo, Sr. is a dramatist, winner of multiple PEN Prison Writing Awards, and part-time mentor to all those who seek purpose in imprisonment.

Vera believes in using our platforms to elevate diverse voices and opinions, including those of people currently and formerly incarcerated. Other than Vera employees, contributors speak for themselves. Vera has not independently verified the statements made in this piece.