Japan’s prisons house the elderly-AP

January 18, 2011

Japanese prisons face swelling elderly population

Though crime rate remains low, spike in elderly crime is sign of social and economic strains.

Mari Yamaguchi

Associated Press: December 27, 2010

http://www.statesman.com/news/world/japanese-prisons-face-swelling-elderly-population-1149434.html?viewAsSinglePage=true

In this Nov. 17, 2010 photo, elderly inmates have lunch together at Onomichi Prison in Onomichi, Japan, near the city of Hiroshima. Welcome to the world of old-age prisons. Japan’s population is aging faster than anywhere else, and with that has come an even sharper rise in elderly inmates. [Itsuo Inouye]

 

In this Nov. 17, 2010 photo, a prison guard watches elderly inmates having lunch at Onomichi Prison in Onomichi, Japan, near the city of Hiroshima. Welcome to the world of old-age prisons. Japan’s population is aging faster than anywhere else, and with that has come an even sharper rise in elderly inmates.

 

A prison guard watches elderly inmates during their six-hour daily labor shift (younger prisoners work eight hours) in Onomichi, Japan, near Hiroshima.

 

In this Nov. 17, 2010 photo, an elderly prisoner works during a six-hour daily labor shift at Onomichi Prison in Onomichi, Japan, near the city of Hiroshima. Welcome to the world of old-age prisons. Japan’s population is aging faster than anywhere else, and with that has come an even sharper rise in elderly inmates. Other than the one in Onomichi, the government has also invested $100 million to build larger facilities at three other prisons around the country, and more are planned.

 

Handrails run down the middle of the hall to help prisoners make their way from one end to the other. Adult diapers are neatly stacked in a corner. When an inmate chokes on his rice and coughs, a supervisor rushes over to rub his back.

Welcome to the world of old-age prisons. Japan’s population is aging faster than anywhere else, and with that has come an even sharper rise in elderly prison inmates.

The number of Japanese prisoners age 60 or older has doubled over the past decade to more than 10,000. That outpaces a 30 percent increase in the general population for that age group. The elderly now make up 16 percent of Japan’s inmates. An entire floor has been converted into a pilot geriatric ward at Onomichi Prison, near the city of Hiroshima.

“The number of senior inmates has been surging, and there is no sign of decrease,” said Koki Maezawa, a Justice Ministry official in charge of prison services. “It’s a serious problem that the entire society must tackle so that offenders don’t keep coming back to prison once they get out.”

Though Japan’s crime rate remains relatively low, the spike in elderly crime is another sign of the social and economic strains on the once-confident country.

Most of the inmates have been convicted of shoplifting and theft, reflecting the financial pressures and lack of family support facing many older Japanese amid a lengthy economic slump and fraying social cohesion.

About half are repeat offenders, including some who steal to get caught and return to the relative security of prison, where at least shelter and three meals a day, as well as a twice-weekly bath, are guaranteed.

“I’m already an old man, and the economy is bad out there,” a nearly 70-year-old inmate said. His 31/2-year sentence for attempted robbery is up in April, and the prospect of going free fills him with more dread than joy.

“I’m worried that there would be no work for someone like me,” he said, adding that he fears that his younger brother might shun him. Prison rules forbid using his name and exact age.

The graying of the prison population isn’t unique to Japan, though it’s happening faster here than in other countries, according to the Justice Ministry.

In the United States, the number of inmates age 55 and older in state and federal prisons grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, from 43,300 to 76,400, according to the Justice Department. The overall prison population rose only 18 percent. Those age 60 or older numbered 35,900, or 2.3 percent of the total, a much smaller proportion than in Japan.

At Onomichi Prison, the hallways use ramps, not steps, and prisoners are allowed to use walkers if they need them.

The inmates work six hours a day, instead of the eight required of other prisoners, and do lighter tasks, such as sorting papers, folding laundry and making beadwork and paper crafts. All prison employees have received training for elder care, and two are certified assistant nurses.

“We have to provide the kind of attention like ordinary nursing homes,” said Yoshihiro Kurahashi, the prison’s chief guard.

Still, the prisoners’ lives are strictly regimented, and conditions are hardly comfortable. There is no air conditioning to help endure southwestern Japan’s sweltering summers. All inmates must work, even those past retirement age. No talking is allowed at lunch, at work or during bathing; inmates may converse, read or watch TV only during a short period after lunch and at night until lights-out at 9.

But everywhere there are signs that this isn’t a normal prison.

Mattresses cover the walls of another cell, now empty; they protected an inmate with dementia who repeatedly banged his head against them. More than half the inmates have some form of dementia.

The prison has a small clinic, but those who need advanced treatment are transferred to facilities with bigger medical wards, such as the one in Hiroshima.

Onomichi’s pilot project houses 61 inmates ages 60 to 89. The facilities that have been built at three other prisons will together be able to handle 1,000 elderly inmates when they are fully operational.

Shoplifting is a growing problem across all ages in Japan, but the number of senior offenders has jumped nearly sevenfold over the past decade, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police.

In a Tokyo police survey of 1,050 shoplifting suspects last year, the majority of seniors said they were financially troubled or without regular income, were single and had no friends. They most often stole food, cosmetics and other small items worth less than $60.

“Elderly shoplifting cases have become a major social problem, and we have lagged in taking proper steps,” said Tokyo police official Fumio Yamashita. “We must seek how to rebuild our social ties.”

Japan now has a record 1.3 million families on welfare, of which 44 percent are elderly households.

“Some of the seniors here were convicted of shoplifting after having trouble making ends meet,” said Takashi Hayashi, head of the Onomichi Prison. “In a way, they are victims of the bad economy, but that shouldn’t be an excuse.”

Prison shouldn’t be their retirement home, he said. “We want them to regain motivation to live so they can return to society and stand on their own.”

The prison has stepped up vocational and welfare programs to help seniors return to society.

“Our main concern is how to keep them from repeating crimes. It would be best if they can support themselves physically and financially. If not, who would take care of them?” said Kurahashi, the prison guard. “Nursing care homes are already full. Who would be willing to accept former convicts?”

 

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