A look at life behind the bars of a South Korean prison.

Reviewed by James Card / Seoul and Changwon, South Korea February 2, 2009 NYTimes

Notable Mention in Best American Travel Writing 2008

By Anthony Bourdain (Editor), Jason Wilson (Series Editor) NYTimes

On the Road to Self-Discovery, Korean Jail Was a Pothole

Review by William Grimes, New York Times March 28, 2007 NYTimes

11:00 Cullen Thomas: "Brother One Cell" (Viking)

Interview with Diane Rehm for NPR Radio (Audio: Real/Win) March 28, 2007 Diane Rehm


BOOKLIST (Starred Review)

In 1994, Thomas was a bright young man just out of college, looking to satisfy his wanderlust by teaching English in South Korea. His taste for adventure was formed in early childhood when he and his brother invented an imaginary character named the "Jolly Marauder," a pirate-nobleman with a fearless heart and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Thomas claimed the Jolly Marauder as his life model, which influenced his decisions to accept the teaching job in Seoul, work there illegally without a contract, and buy a cheap kilo of hashish in the Philippines to sell back in Seoul for a cool 10 grand. The fantasy ended, however, when Thomas was caught by the police and sentenced to three and a half years in a South Korean prison. In his memoir, Thomas explains how that time of incarceration represented his real education. Surprisingly, he found little brutality (no rape) in Korea's penal institutions, but there were language barriers, unfamiliar foreign customs, extreme codes of social ierarchy, and almost no individual freedoms. He had to overcome all of this, as well as his own personal demons, to get to a place of higher understanding˜something that, amazingly, he seemed to accomplish. His account of that journey is gripping.
—Jerry Eberle

Innocents Abroad

Finding Yourself—the Hard Way

Review by Jason Daley, Outside Magazine

March 28, 2007

Outside Magazine

Accidental Tourist


April 2007

Book Review: Brother One Cell

Review by Brian Hartenstein for

March 20, 2007

Prison Life in Korea Given Hard Cell

South Korea hasn’t been particularly kind to Cullen Thomas. In fact, she’s been a real bitch. “The pain in my side hasn’t been diagnosed, but I’m sure it’s Korea,” he deadpans in the introduction to his hair-raising memoir: “A little Korean tumor there between the pancreas and liver.” Given the details that follow, frankly, it’s incredible that Thomas can hear the country’s name mentioned in his presence without convulsing with fear and loathing, let alone research and write a book about the place.
A young American in search of “adventure”, Thomas spent seven months in the Hermit Kingdom teaching English, and another three-and-a-half years in its prison system for smuggling hashish. A rare foreign inmate struggling to survive the soul-destroyingly harsh conditions, he “grew up” among a motley crew of life-hardened convicts: Pakistani human traffickers awaiting the death penalty for murder; a philosophical Colombian emerald smuggler (yes, such people do really exist); a carefree Peruvian thief who traveled the world in a business suit; a fellow American who killed his two sons; and a Korean gangleader who inspired the prisoners to do their time with dignity and strength.
The story that emerges out of this bleak scenario is unexpectedly life-affirming—a triumph of the human spirit over jackboot-stamping adversity that never strays in sentimentality or cliché. Thomas writes so freely and passionately of his experiences in Seoul Detention Centre and the broken down palaces of Uijongbu and Taejon that it is sometimes hard to see where the horrors—and there are plenty—end and the moments of enlightenment and self-discovery begin.
Indeed, Korea, for all its nightmarish associations in Thomas’s mind, is painted by the author with genuine affection. Brother One Cell is, in places, more like a glowing travelogue than a prison diary. We get maps, a couple of history lessons, and even an outline of the Confucian culture that not only binds the country’s social fabric and the fascinating rituals and philosophy of its penal system, but also provided the key to Thomas’s own personal salvation.This is a very moving book, and its perspective is both rare and timely: a mature and positive American voice lost in a foreign landscape.      
—Kieran Grant, (News Letter, Northern Ireland)
Babylon By BusCullen's story, and that of his fellow inmates, is an extraordinary journey into an inescapable nightmare. He begins his sentence as a bitter young man—confused, scared, and struggling to come to terms with his terrible lot. What transpires throughout the course of this wonderfully written memoir is at the same time provocative and entirely heartbreaking.
—Jeff Neumann, co-author of Babylon by Bus
Babylon By BusLike a bastard child of Paul Theroux's travel writing and Joan Didion's crisp introspective prose, BROTHER ONE CELL is a scary, funny, honest-as-hell account of growing up and paying your dues inside-gulp-a Korean prison. Cullen Thomas probes with equal intensity his own life and mistakes, incarceration's mental and physical toll, the experiences of his fellow inmates, and the humbling road to redemption, achieving a symphonic narrative harmony that makes his story impossible to forget. This is memoir at its highest level.
—Ray LeMoine, co-author of Babylon by Bus

'Brother One Cell' a search for self in South Korean prison

Review April 25, 2007
Chicago Tribune

Brother One Cell – Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons


July 22, 2007
South China Morning Post

Cullen Thomas is a stupid American who owes a lot to the South Korean prosecutor who pretended to believe that the kilogram of hashish he posted to himself in Seoul from the Philippines was for personal consumption. The prosecutor was fascinated with the American, as were jailers and inmates. Their prisons are neither terrifying nor violent places, but the 3½-year sentence was physically tough. In winter, the ink in his pen froze in the unheated cell. The food was mostly low-grade rice and kimchi and Thomas became ill with parasites and some nasty skin ailments. But the writer also meets a Tolstoy-reading Colombian gem smuggler, who teaches him how to survive, and a Peruvian thief who steals luggage from airports and hotels and who tells him exciting tales. Thomas has an easy, honest style that makes even the boredom fascinating. What makes Brother One Cell work is how the 23-year-old turns his arrest to his advantage, learning a life of asceticism and rationalising it all in a way his explorer hero, Richard Burton, might have understood. “I’d entered a forbidden city, lived among a bizarre and wondrous people, gained knowledge of a province previously unknown to my race."

Book Signing in Jim Thorpe

Review (picture) July 5, 2007
Times News

Cullen Thomas: Inside ‘Brother One Cell’

Interview June 6, 2007
World Hum

The Helsinki Times

Review May 15, 2008
Voice of America News

Korea Weekly

Review August 12, 2008
Voice of America News

The Korea Times

Review June 21, 2008
Voice of America News

The Korea Herald

Review July 17, 2008
Voice of America News

The Korea Herald

Best Seller Mention March 27, 2008
Voice of America News

Voice of America

Interview May 14, 2007
Voice of America News

An American Grows Up in a Korean Jail

Review May 16, 2007
JoongAng Daily

Chosun Ilbo

Review (Korean Paper)
CLICK HERE for a pdf of the newspaper.
Chosun Ilbo

Busan Ilbo

Review (Korean Paper)
Busan Ilbo

Best Korea Travelogue Since Henrik Hamel

Loved this book. As a prison memoir, it does not shock or scare. Korean prisons, despite their lack of heat, cannot compete with Thai, Turkish or American prisons on the fear scale. This book delivers much more; it is the best that I have ever read on the subject of foreigners negotiating, stumbling, fumbling and bumbling their way through South Korea. Thomas captures the maddening dualities, how he is constantly faced with both special treatment and petty humiliations. One minute, he is in awe of the maturity, cohesion, the generosity, gentleness and, above all, the charm of Koreans. The next he is driven up the wall by their uniformity, closed-mindedness, bullying, brutality and pride. Every foreigner that has lived in Korea on Korea's terms has lived Thomas's story. Obviously, few have lived as much on Korea's terms as Thomas. And fewer still have written about the experience with more intelligence, even-handedness and wit.
The most touching and disturbing part of the book deals with the author's friendship with a character identified only as Green. Green, married to a Korean prostitute, is serving time for murdering his own half-Korean children. Upon his parole, Green is deported and immediately relocates to Koreatown in Los Angeles, finding a home where outsiders are not supposed to have a place. Why would he choose to get as close as he possibly could to his former captors? After reading Thomas's extraordinary book, you will understand why.
—Andrew N. Weber (Merrick, New York via Amazon)
Is it contagious? Am I just crazy? As I read this book, I too felt a pain in my side. Was it a tear in the muscle around the ribs as I walked across the street and turned to avoid being hit by a car with this book in my hand unable to put it down? No. It was deeper but it felt good. It was a reminder of the scars of my own life. My own little battle wounds. My own tale of survival. But this was much bigger. I began to think, "this could've been me... the risks we all take.. day in and day out.." Then you realize.. "This is me.. I've been living my own prison, only my walls are different..." It woke me from life. I don't recommend it, life without that pain in your side. The constant reminder. The reminder of survival. The reminder of the duality of life. My life a prison and this book my sanctuary. My old self and my new self. I felt stronger than before, but by the end of the book I was envious. I wanted to live it for real. I wanted to commit the same crime and serve the same penalty. I wanted to know what it was really like. I wanted the same privilege. I wanted to know the freedom inside those prison walls.
—Rollnstonz (New York via Amazon)

Gets to the Marrow of Korea

May 6, 2007

It took me a while to get my hands on this book after reading about Thomas in an issue of Esquire Magazine, I think it was. I had to get it shipped to me here in Korea through a book importer. I couldn't wait for it to arrive because I was so impressed with the magazine article that I had high expectations for the book.
My expectations were fully met. I've been interested in Korea for about seven years now, coming here twice as a student, and now living and working here while studying Korean. I've read several books about Korean culture, economy, etc, etc. None of the previous books I have read were able to paint such a vivid and profound picture of the culture I have come to love, in spite of its flaws.
Somehow, by experiencing a side of the country that we rarely hear about, he is able to understand the essence of Korean society and illustrate it in ways that rang true with my own experiences while simultaneously shedding new light on aspects that I still struggle with. In particular, it was interesting reading this book while settling into a job as the only non-Korean full-time employee of a Korean company. Not that prison compares to company life in the least.
This book is good on several levels. Other reviewers have already discussed the merits of the book as a memoir, etc, so I wanted to praise the book specifically as a book that relates to Korea, though perhaps not as many readers will be interested in this aspect of the book. I hope a Korean translation is released, because I think it would be an interesting perspective for Koreans to read about as well.
—Steven D. Ward "Copywriter" (Seoul, South Korea via Amazon)


©2007 Cullen Thomas