Saturday, 18 April 2015

Japan's elderly convicts prefer jail to life outside

Prisons face soaring costs, with 1 in 5 inmates over 60
The Straits Times, 17 Apr 2015

TOKYO - Most prisons spend a lot of time and effort keeping inmates from escaping. In Japan, the greater challenge is convincing convicts to leave.

Among developed economies, Japan has one of the highest proportions of elderly prisoners. Crimes committed by senior citizens have quadrupled over the past two decades. Today, almost one in five convicts is over 60.

The soaring costs of caring for these greying jailbirds are an added pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government. To reduce repeat offences, Japan aims to slash the number of convicts who are homeless at the time of their release by more than 30 per cent by 2020.

Hitting such targets will be tough, particularly given the surge over the last decade in elderly prisoners, who often prefer a government-subsidised life behind bars to an isolated, destitute one on the outside.

At the Fukushima Female Prison, convicts older than 60 make up 28 per cent of inmates. The eldest is a 91-year-old serial larcenist, whose life behind bars gives her free food, lodgings and medical care.

"Japan's prisons are in poor condition, mostly without heating or air-conditioning," said Professor Koichi Hamai, a criminologist at Ryukoku University's law school. "But they still prefer to be there rather than outside. They have mates and food and are well cared for."

The world's third-largest economy has seen its prisons evolve into something approaching nursing homes, with prison guards often doubling as nurses.

At the Fukushima Female Prison, frail convicts are looked after by officers who could pass for their granddaughters. They change their adult diapers and wet underwear, clean their soiled bodies and help them to walk, director Hiromi Akama said.

Prison healthcare expenses are also growing, fuelled by the higher cost of caring for elderly inmates. Charges for drugs and medical equipment almost doubled to six billion yen (S$68.4 million) in the nine years through March 2015, according to the justice ministry.

Elderly criminals recycle in and out of the system because they lack family and financial support. They are often disabled and treated like outcasts in their local community.

Many elderly prisoners have had a difficult past, said social worker Takeshi Izumaru, who works at the Nagasaki Community Support Centre. An elderly man he helped years ago had said he was scared of being released because he hated life outside prison more than life inside, he added.

Each year, about 6,400 prisoners are released without a home to go to. One in three relapses and will be back in prison within two years, government statistics show.

Most perpetual offenders are also jobless at the time of their arrest. To tackle this, the government seeks to triple the number of companies that accept former convicts to 1,500 by 2020.

But the problem is, Japanese prison support centres have limited resources and the criminals face prejudice in society, Ryukoku University's Prof Hamai said.

Finding a nursing-home bed for former convicts is especially difficult because they are vying with 520,000 other elderly Japanese on waiting lists.

Programmes like Mr Izumaru's, though, are making life outside less daunting. The social worker lectured in March to inmates at Sasebo Prison, a jailhouse for perpetual offenders.

One of the attendees was an elderly former construction worker who had been jailed 10 times for minor offences. He is now too old to get a job, has no home to go to or any living relatives.

"I'm happy I can be hopeful about my life after I'm released," the man said. "I'm too old to say I want to start afresh, but I've decided I want to live my remaining life right."


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