Death row is not knowing when

Inmates wake up every day wondering if it's their last

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It is not uncommon in Japan for people convicted of brutal, often notorious, murders to be sentenced to hang.

But the public knows little about what lies in store for death-row inmates after their sentences are finalized, while the inmates themselves never know from then on which day will be their last. They thus bear the stress of having to face the gallows without notice — and without being afforded the opportunity to bid anyone farewell.

This scenario has prompted experts to raise questions about their treatment.

“Conditions on death row are very harsh,” the mother of a man facing execution at Tokyo Detention House told an international conference on capital punishment in Tokyo earlier this year.

The mother, who declined to be named, said her son’s sentence was finalized by the Supreme Court last year after 10 years of trial at the district, high and top court levels.

Like other death-row inmates, her son is in solitary confinement, she said.

He was convicted of murdering a family of four during a burglary in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, in 1992, when he was a minor.

The mother said his contact with the outside world has been more restricted since his sentence was finalized.

Death-row convicts are only allowed to meet close relatives and attorneys working on an appeal — with guards present.

Every letter written or received by convicts is screened by authorities.

According to the inmate’s mother, if any part of a letter written by her son is deemed inappropriate, he is forced to rewrite that portion, often to the point that the original meaning is lost.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations said such limits on communication hinder a convict’s pursuit of an appeal or retrial.

And then there is the agony of not knowing when the fateful day will come.

“Every time I visit my son, I think today might be the last time I see him,” the mother said, noting that neither the family, the lawyer nor the convict will be notified in advance of the execution day. “It’s like the state is testing my son’s patience, forcing him to lose control and go mad.”

Justice Ministry officials claim, however, there is no other choice.

“Besides physically restraining convicts so they cannot escape, an important goal in confining them is to make them accept the sentence and face their own death calmly,” said Jun Aoyama of the ministry’s Corrections Bureau.

“But prisoners awaiting execution are always in a psychologically unstable state, and every little thing can cause trouble,” he added.

Every regulation restricting the prisoners’ communications helps keep their mental state steady, he said.

“As long as the country sanctions capital punishment, it is our duty to make sure that the criminals atone for their crime.”

The hangman’s stress

The brutality of executions goes beyond just the killing of inmates, according to Social Democratic Party lawmaker Reiko Oshima, who is a member of a nonpartisan group of Diet members opposed to capital punishment.

Prison officers also bear a psychological burden when they carry out the sentence, she said.

“Article 36 of the Constitution stipulates that the infliction of torture by any public officer and cruel punishment is forbidden,” she said, noting it is unconstitutional for the government to require that prison officers carry out executions.

What surprised her most is that neither recruitment advertisements nor internal rules for prison officers stipulate that their duties include carrying out executions.

Prison guard recruitment ads in fact only show the bright side of their job and make no mention of the gallows. Internal regulations also decline to mention that carrying out executions is one of a prison guard’s duties.

The bar federation said there are reports about wardens suffering psychological disorders after witnessing or carrying out hangings.

Lawyer Yoshihiro Yasuda, a leading campaigner against capital punishment, said, “I have heard of a former prison officer bursting into tears as he related his experience of witnessing executions.”

Justice Ministry gag orders keep them from relating such horrors to the public, he added.

“This kind of business is not something that you do openly,” ministry official Aoyama said.

“They (prison officers) may have various feelings (about carrying out executions), but everyone in the prison knows that executions are a part of their job.”