Author(s)Center for Prisoners’ rights / Pr Akaike (Univ. of Kyoto) / Mme Yasuda (Univ. of Kokugakuin)
The total prison population (63,358 in 2015) has been falling since 2005 when it was over 70,000. The occupancy rate for prisons is also low at 67,1% nationally. Despite this, there remains a few (mostly women’s) prisons, where overcrowding is still an issue.
In Japan, pre-trial detainees are held separately from sentenced prisoners. Male and female prisoners are held in separate facilities in prisons and detention centers and juveniles under 20 are kept separately from adults in prisons and regular detention centers.
About 80% of prisoners are imprisoned for three years or less (JFBA 2014), with the majority being held for theft, drug offences and fraud. Road traffic offenses are now being more strictly enforced and sentenced.
There are nine women-only prisons in Japan. The number of female inmates has increased recently and the government faces a nationwide shortage of housing for female prisoners. More women are being incarcerated for minor offenses including theft and traffic offences. Low pensions are a contributing factor for theft crimes amongst older women, especially widows.
Due to overcrowding, special cells for mothers with babies are not always available. Although Prison Law states that mothers can keep their infant children with them up until the age of 12 months old, this is not always the case.
Saijo prison recently completed renovations for a new-women-only section where incarcerated mothers can care for their babies up until the age of 12 months. The prison can accommodate up to 83 inmates and most guards at the prison are also women. Previously, female prisoners were sent across the Inland Sea to Wakayama Prefecture, making it hard for family members to visit.
Some pre-natal care is given to pregnant women, but is not considered sufficient.
In January 2015, a father filed a complaint after his wife, an inmate in Kasamatsu prison in Gifu Prefecture, was made to give birth with handcuffs on. Under the Penal Detention Act, inmates must be handcuffed whilst being escorted in and out of prison and at all times when outside the prison facility. There is no exception for giving birth in a hospital, although the wardens present can decide to un-cuff the prisoner. A representative of the ministry’s correction bureau confirmed they decided to change the policy after hearing of the case at Kasamatsu prison.
In Japan, juvenile prisoners are defined as young people less than 20 years of age. All juvenile cases are first sent to a family court, where the judge may decide that the juvenile be tried by the ordinary court (as an adult).
Juveniles not tried by an ordinary court are detained in juvenile training schools (typical juvenile correctional institutions); these prisoners represented 2,872 at the end of 2014. The 52 Juvenile institutions are under the responsibility of the prison administration.
Minors under 18 cannot be sentenced to the death penalty.
The number of foreign prisoners (2,336) includes those sentenced and held on remand, but does not include foreign nationals born and raised in Japan. Foreigners who can speak Japanese are treated the same way as Japanese prisoners. Those who cannot speak Japanese are sent to particular prisons where they are required to follow Japanese language courses.
Fuchu and Osaka prisons have separate accommodation blocks for foreign prisoners and some prisoners are kept in individual cells. For foreign inmates, books and other reading materials in their native language can be directly purchased or donated by libraries and embassies.
No statistics are available, but there are thought to be a considerable number of LGBTI prisoners.
Among developed economies, Japan has one of the highest percentages of elderly prisoners. Crimes committed by senior citizens have increased significantly over the past two decades, with some prisons starting to more closely resemble nursing homes.
In 2015, almost one in five prisoners was over 60 years old. Elderly criminals are generally incarcerated for pickpocketing, shoplifting, bicycle theft and other minor offences. The recidivism rate for this population is high due to lack of rehabilitation opportunities for aged and intellectually disabled prisoners.
This phenomenon is creating difficulties for the penitentiary administration. A growing number of prisoners suffer from dementia or need assistance for simple tasks such as walking, bathing and eating. As a result, prison health care expenses are growing. Finding a nursing home bed for ex-inmates is also difficult once they exit the prison system, as the waiting list is particularly long.
Elderly prisoners are only considered handicapped if they have specific problems or difficulties. Otherwise, they receive the same treatment as ordinary prisoners. Old age is not, independent from other circumstances, a valid reason for early release.
Forty-eight Regional Sustained Community Life Support Centers for elderly and handicapped ex-offenders have been created in 47 prefectures across Japan. Hokkaido has two centers to serve larger areas under the council Zenteikyo. These centers support elderly and handicapped ex-offenders in rejoining life in the outside world and help prevent recidivism.