Hongcheon, South Korea – Jong Hwa-nam was looking up holiday destinations for her summer break when she came across a week-long meditation programme offered by Prison Inside Me.
Instead of going on a vacation, the 50-year-old signed up for a programme because she felt “it was for me”.
“Strangely, I always had this animosity and distrust of people. They were unpleasant feelings,” Jong told Al Jazeera at the centre in Hongcheon, about 100km from the capital Seoul.
“After self-reflection here, I came to the conclusion that animosity and distrust can easily be eradicated, and that we are the same people, pursuing the same values.”
Prison Inside Me was launched in 2008 by Kwon Yong-seok, a former prosecutor who used to work 100 hours a week who could not stop working even though he was “very tired”.
“I was exhausted physically and mentally but I wasn’t brave enough to quit my job. I didn’t know what to do with my life,” said Kwon.
“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. And that’s how I came up with the idea of Prison Inside Me.”
More than 2,000 people have checked into Prison Inside Me over the years. Programmes range from 24-hour stays to week-long ones. Patrons have included office workers, students, corporate bosses and stay-at-home mothers.
They spend their time in one of the 28 cells. There are spiritual group activities and a guidebook. But most of the time spent at the centre is in confinement in a room with a diary, yoga mat and a panic button.
In 2017, the average South Korean spent around 2,024 hours working, the third-highest among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
It was the most overworked nation in Asia with 300 more hours on average than the US.
In order to improve work-life balance, South Korea cut its working hours from 68 to 52 a week in July this year.
The hours were “inhumanely long”, according to the country’s gender equality minister. President Moon Jae-in said the move to cut down working hours was to give Koreans a “right to rest”.
Heavy workload and office stress are the biggest reasons why patrons pay to spend time at Prison Inside Me. Kwon himself founded it because he wanted a getaway from his hectic job and routine.
However, there are some who want a break from their daily lives and time to self-reflect.
“I didn’t think I was growing in life and I was worried about my family’s future,” said 37-year-old Jong Hyup-lee, a computer programmer.
“I wanted to empty out such concerns from my system. I came here to get rid of these stuffy feelings. After spending a week here, I realised all these concerns were delusions and I was able to free myself from them and own my life.”
At the centre, people have to turn in their mobile phones and other belongings before changing into a uniform. They are then assigned one of the 28 cells, which measure only 6sq metres, where they will spend most of their time.
The doors, with narrow glass panes, are painted grey to give them a “prison look” and are locked from the outside. But the clients are shown how to open them from the inside if they need to.
Meals are served through a slot in the doors.
“You are literally confined there which is the whole concept of the programme,” said Noh Jihyang, Kwon’s wife and cofounder of Prison Inside Me.
“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.”
The new regulation to reduce the number of working hours is set to cost Korean businesses an additional 12 trillion won ($11bn) if the same levels of production are to be maintained, according to the Korean Economic Research Institute.
While the change has been welcomed by the ruling party, it is facing stiff opposition from the business community with some analysts arguing it will not a make a difference.
“Only one in 10 workers will be able to enjoy the benefits of the change. For most small businesses, it means rising labour costs and worsening profitability while their workers will have to accept lower pay for reduced working hours,” Kim Tae-gi, a professor of economics at Dankook University, was quoted as saying by the Financial Times.
Kwon reckons the change in law will help Korean society and is happy giving people the opportunity to experience solitude and meditation with experts nearby for help if needed.
He acknowledges, however, that the experiences gained in the short stay were something people needed to implement into their daily lives.
“I don’t think 24 or 48 hours of staying here is enough time to change a person’s life,” said Kwon.
“However, I think it gives a chance and an opportunity to start that change. The value and experience of spending time alone affects their life afterwards. Some have even described it as the greatest gift they’ve given themselves.”
Additional reporting and video by Kwon Moon