View from the West: Prisons to Double as Retirement Homes?

December 21st, 2010By Category: Culture

It’s quite well known that Japan’s rapidly aging population is taking its toll on many facets of polite society. But what is the toll on not-so-polite society? According to a recent AP article, Japan’s population of elderly inmates is also growing fast.

And prison facilities and personnel have to adapt. One prison near Hiroshima has installed handrails in hallways and replaced staircases with ramps to accommodate old inmates with arthritis and bad knees. Provisions are made for bed wetting and other degrees of incontinence. The facility has also hired nurses with expertise in elderly care.

The saddest part of the article, though, is the revelation that it’s not old yakuza and other toughs convicted years ago who are filling up prisons. Most are new, non-violent offenders wrapped up in the throes of recession. With jobs scarce and money running out, they turn to shoplifting, petty theft, and more. When the short sentences (two or three years) end, they seemingly have nowhere to go. Japanese culture doesn’t embrace second chances. In a land where family honor means everything, many aging inmates fear their siblings and children will shun them upon release. However, it’s harder to get paroled if you don’t have a reliable “guardian” to look after you on the outside. A handful become repeat offenders because they simply have nowhere else to turn.

Though a prison official pointedly said prisons should not become de-facto retirement homes, the article almost paints a different picture. The facility is a far cry from the rough-and-tumble atmosphere you’d expect in an American penitentiary. It’s very Japanese in its orderliness. Inmates work six hours a day, even if they’re older than the standard retirement age. Talking is not permitted for most of the day, and bedtime is 9 p.m. when the lights are turned off. Sadly, for some inmates, the lights may never come back on.

Author of this article

Mark Hersberger

The “View from the West” column takes a light-hearted examination of all things Japanese through the prism of current events, pop culture, movies, books, and any other Japan-centric content Western audiences may come across. Mark Hersberger is an active Japan commentator and author of the mystery novel Tokyo Lives (see 'Website' link).

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