Japan’s Prisons Are Turning Into Nursing Homes

A nation with little crime finds that elderly prisoners prefer the comforts of life behind bars

Why Some of Japan's Elderly Want to Go to Jail

Most prisons spend a lot of time and effort keeping inmates from escaping. In Japan, the greater challenge is persuading 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 graying jailbirds are an added pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which is already burdened by a world-class debt load equal to roughly 240 percent of gross domestic product. To reduce repeat offenses, Japan aims to slash the number of convicts who are homeless at the time of their release by more than 30 percent by 2020, when it hosts the summer Olympic games.

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

Consider the case of a 67-year-old male inmate at Nagasaki Prison on the southern island of Kyushu. (The names of prisoners interviewed for this story were omitted to protect their privacy.) Serving his 14th sentence for pickpocketing, he’s due for release in December, though social workers say he’s bound to relapse yet again into prison life. He has no friends or immediate family, nor a place to live.

Inmates listen to a lecture by Takeshi Izumaru, director at the Nagasaki Community Support Center at Sasebo Prison in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.
Inmates listen to a lecture by Takeshi Izumaru, director at the Nagasaki Community Support Center at Sasebo Prison in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north at the Fukushima Female Prison, convicts older than 60 make up 28 percent of inmates. The eldest is a 91-year-old serial larcenist, whose life in the slammer gives her free food, lodgings and medical care.

“Japan’s prisons are in poor condition, mostly without heating or air-conditioning,” says Koichi Hamai, a professor of criminology 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.”

Repeat Offenders

Japan is one of the world’s most law-abiding countries, with an incarceration rate of 49 per 100,000 people that the U.S. (698 per 100,000) and many European nations can only envy. Yet the world’s third-largest economy has seen its prisons evolve into something approaching nursing homes.

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.

The personal effects of inmates in a shared cell.
The personal effects of inmates in a shared cell.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

“Some prisons have become like nursing homes,” said Ryotaro Sugi, who was given the honorary title of special corrections officer by the Justice Ministry in 2008 to advocate for prisoners’ welfare after visiting jails over almost five decades. “Many need assistance for walking, bathing and eating. Some groan at night from pain, throw their excrement or wander inside cells because they’re suffering dementia.”

Criminal offenses by those age 60 and over have quadrupled to 46,243 cases over the two decades that ended in 2014, according to Japan’s Ministry of Justice.

Welfare Cheaper

Japan budgeted 230 billion yen ($1.91 billion) for running its jails in the year ended March 2015. It costs about 3.2 million yen to keep someone locked up for a year, according to the Justice Ministry. That’s about double what a person on standard welfare can get.

Under Japanese sentencing guidelines, repeat offenders of petty crimes, such as shoplifting, can spend as long as five years behind bars. In theory, someone stealing a 1,000 yen ($8.30) bento lunch box could end up costing the state 16 million yen to imprison for a maximum sentence.

“It makes no one happy to use public money like this,” said Yoshiaki Tajima, Nagasaki-based chairman of Nanko-Airin-Kai Social Welfare Services, who has led government-funded studies on prison populations.

Prison health-care expenses are also increasing, driven by the higher cost of caring for elderly inmates. Charges for drugs and medical equipment almost doubled, to 6 billion yen, in the nine years through March 2015, while hospital admissions reached 1,278 in 2012, almost double 2003 levels, according to the Justice Ministry.

Reentry Programs

Japan’s government funded a study of the state of the nation’s prisons in 2006, after former politician Joji Yamamoto wrote about his stint in the clink in the award-winning book, Gokusoki, meaning “prison life,” in 2003. His exposé portrayed a penal system rife with men with mental and physical disabilities.

In 2009, Japan began setting up support centers in the nation’s 47 prefectures, usually each with a 25 million yen annual budget, to help prisoners’ shift back into society.

The elderly criminal phenomenon gained national attention in 2006, when a mentally-ill, 74-year-old ex-convict burned down the West Japan Railway Co.’s Shimonoseki Station. He had been released from prison eight days earlier and told the police afterwards that he wanted to return because he was hungry and cold.

Incarceration Avoidable

Many prisoners could have avoided jail had they received welfare support, said Satoru Ohashi, director of general affairs with the Justice Ministry’s correction bureau. “These people fell through the cracks,” he said.

Two-thirds of inmates suffered at least one health complaint in 2012, a Justice Ministry report found. The main culprits were cardiovascular diseases, mental illness and behavioral disorders.

Prison guards often end up 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.

No Resort

Japanese prisons are generally safer for inmates than penitentiaries in the West. Yet they’re scarcely resorts.

Inmates rise at 6:45 a.m. and turn in at 9 p.m. in cells. Prisoners are grouped in lots of 10 to 20 and forced to undertake jobs, from growing vegetables and cooking meals to caring for disabled inmates.

The bathhouse at the Nagasaki Prison.
The bathhouse at the Nagasaki Prison.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Signs in workrooms and bathrooms remind inmates that talking is forbidden while they are working, eating and bathing to maintain discipline. They must also ask a guard’s permission to use the restroom.

The 67-year-old serial pickpocket in Nagasaki Prison is a typical inmate. Dressed in lime-green work clothes, he shakes his head and struggles to answer simple questions from social workers about where he lives or the meaning of words written on paper and to calculate simple math problems. He suffers from diabetes, hypertension, hearing problems and a learning disability, one of the social workers said.

Money Problems

He held several temporary jobs at bars and on a fishing boat, he says. When he ran out of cash, he stole money to buy clothes, food and drinks from pubs. His last crime was nicking a wallet from a shopper’s basket in a supermarket.

“I imagined I might be back in prison, but I did it anyway because I was short of money,” he said. “But I want to stop.”

Many elderly prisoners have had difficult pasts, growing up in orphanages or being physically or sexually abused, said social worker Takeshi Izumaru, who works at the Nagasaki Community Support Center. 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 said.

Heart Wrenching

“His words summarized the social problems for the weak in Japan, and they bit into my heart,” Izumaru said. “We must intervene early, because the longer they spend in jail, the less connected they are with society.”

Izumaru tries to find homes for ex-cons and lectures inmates before they are released about how to go back successfully into society. Support centers like his have helped more than 1,000 people since they were set up about five years ago.

A shared cell at the Nagasaki Prison.
A shared cell at the Nagasaki Prison.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Prisons and some prosecutors routinely refer inmates to in-house social workers for assistance. The practice is helping, with the incarceration rate of senior repeat offenders falling, according to the Justice Ministry’s Ohashi.

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. Reaching the government’s target of a 30 percent reduction by 2020 will require communitywide support to ensure those who have done time have a place to live and the means to buy food. The government is tracking progress, Ohashi said, without giving a time frame for any status updates.

Most perpetual offenders are jobless at the time of their arrest. The government seeks to triple the number of companies that accepts ex-convicts to 1,500 by 2020.

Battling Prejudice

Trouble is, Japanese prison support centers have limited resources, and the criminals face prejudice in society, Ryukoku University’s Hamai said.

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

Programs like 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 25 miles away from Nagasaki Prison.

Prison guards escort inmates at Sasebo Prison in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.
Prison guards escort inmates at Sasebo Prison in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

One of the attendees was an elderly former construction worker who had been jailed 10 times for pickpocketing and other minor offenses. He’s 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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