With what the Western world expects of prisons, the order and general culture within Chiba prison, a penitentiary just outside Tokyo, will surprise any one. While prisons almost anywhere else in the world are expected to be loud, dirty and violent places, Chiba almost resembles a very quiet retirement home for former soldiers.
The corridors and the tiny cells are very clean. When moving around uniformed prisoners shuffle in step behind guards and bow before entering rooms. In Japanese prisons generally, talking is banned except during break times. Unpaid penitentiary work is a duty, never a choice. The deputy warden of Chiba prison, Hiroyuki Shinkai, once visited British prisons as a UN researcher and was shocked at what he saw there. He can still recall his surprise at seeing inmates mingling and talking freely. “Japanese penal philosophy is different,” he explains. In this observation he is absolutely spot on.
Japan incarcerates citizens at a far lower rate than most developed countries – 55 incarcerations per 100,000 people. When you compare this with Britain (149) and the United States (716), you realize the marked difference. In prison workshops, inmates silently work, overseen usually by a single unarmed guard. No riot has taken place in a Japanese prison since just after the World War II. Escapes are very rare and drugs and contraband are almost non-existent. Over two-thirds of the inmates of Chiba prison were convicted for crimes that caused death—mainly murder, arson or manslaughter. Half are serving life sentences. In Japan, a life sentence means exactly that. The average prisoner is 50 years old. Conjugal visits are banned, so marriages break down.
Yet increasingly, Japan’s 188 prisons have been coming under harsh criticism, particularly because of their obsession with harsh and severe rules, secrecy and their widespread use of solitary confinement. A landmark report in 1995 by Human Rights Watch, said this order “is achieved at a very high cost”. This includes the violation of fundamental human rights and falling far short of international penal standards.
[ via The Economist ]
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