North Koreans who fled the country spoke to CNN about the conditions they faced in detention.
Those who spoke said they saw and experienced rapes, beating, and torture.
One expert told CNN that many released prisoners are unaware that they lived through torture.
In the North Korean penal system, prisoners face violent rape, starvation, and forced labor, but some don't even realize they are being tortured.
A man who defected from North Korea and was detained multiple times over a 17-year span told CNN that despite inhumane conditions in the country's detention centers, he felt that they were better than what he was used to experiencing in the past.
His testimony was one of many used in a report released Friday from the NGO Korea Future, which detailed torture and abuse faced by detained North Koreans. Many of those targeted by this torture are political prisoners, the report found.
The man, who remained unnamed, told CNN one of the ways the prison he was held in improved was that instead of having to crawl on all fours, he was allowed to walk on his feet — so long as he bowed his head.
"In the past, we had to crawl with both hands and knees when we were moving, but in 2017, we could stand up and walk," the man told CNN. "All you needed was to bend your back forward 90 degrees when moving."
The man also told CNN that up to five people in detention would stay in one room without heat, but at least when he last went to prison in 2017, they gave them blankets. He also said that unlike before, he was given three meals a day, instead of vegetable food rations.
The man said however that he saw multiple guards rape women prisoners. When complained, two guards beat him so badly that afterward he felt "I couldn't live like this."
"I thought I couldn't live like this so I broke the window in the room and grabbed a piece of glass," he said. "The police guard came into my room and in front of them I stabbed my tummy."
Kim Jiwon, a Korea Future investigator, told CNN many North Korean prisoners interviewed for the project "just didn't have the concept of torture" and didn't recognize just how dehumanizing their treatment really was.
"They were always told by the penal facility, the correctional officers, that they had done something bad. So they just simply thought that they were bad people and for that reason, they were being punished," Kim told CNN. "This was very ingrained in their mindset. They didn't even realize that they were being subjected to torture."
Another woman who spoke to CNN said that she was fed and housed like an animal in prison after being detained for complaining about her housing situation.
"I didn't feel like I was a human being," the woman told CNN. "I thought it would've been better to be dead if I had to live like that."
The Korea Future report, released a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Council created a Commission of Inquiry to hold the North Korean government accountable for human rights abuses, said that the country continues to mistreat and torture its prisoners despite saying otherwise.
The report highlights the stories of three prisoners, one of whom was a pregnant woman in her 30s arrested in China, who was forced to have an abortion while in pre-trial detention.
Another man, who helped North Koreans escape, was forced to do labor, and according to his account, was regularly denied adequate nutrition. The man "trapped and consumed insects, such as cockroaches, and small rodents to supplement his meals" according to the report.
In February, the UN HRC released a report on human rights that backs up many of Korea Future's findings. The UN report found that women, in particular, are vulnerable to domestic abuse and violence in the country,
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