For a long time, what went on within the walls of Japanese prisons was shielded from public scrutiny.
However, revelations two years ago of violence, sometimes fatal, inflicted on inmates by guards at Nagoya Prison shed light on prisoner abuses and prompted calls for reforms of the correctional system.
At the human rights symposium “Prison Reform in the 21st Century,” held Saturday by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and Daiichi and Daini Tokyo Bar Association, foreign and Japanese experts addressed some of the problems occurring at Japanese prisons and mulled remedial measures.
Andrew Coyle, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College, University of London, stressed that prisons must follow an ethical framework under Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
“We must never forget that the people whom we lock up are like us, human beings,” Coyle told the symposium. “Their humanity needs to be respected, no matter what crimes they have committed.”
Coyle worked as a prison director for 25 years in Britain. Through this experience, he wrote the handbook, “A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management,” which was translated into Japanese this month. More than 60,000 copies have been distributed to prison staff worldwide.
“I tried to make the experience of imprisonment as positive as possible for the men under my care,” Coyle said. “But the bottom line was that I had to deprive them of their liberty. That is the responsibility which society gives to all prison staff.”
Also citing the need to treat prisoners humanely, Vivien Stern, senior research fellow at ICPS, said it is important to “treat prisoners not as enemies but as fellow citizens.”
“To treat prisoners as citizens, it is necessary to involve civil society groups in many ways so that prison becomes part of normal society, like schools and hospitals,” she said.
In England and Wales, there is a system called Independent Monitoring Boards. Each board consists of local citizens who inspect the prisons regularly and submit an annual report to the government.
In Japan, strict regulations greatly restrict the number of outsiders granted access inside prisons.
“We are hoping to use (the Independent Monitoring Boards system) as a reference to create a similar system in Japan,” said Satoshi Tomiyama, one of the panelists at the symposium and an official of the Justice Ministry’s Correction Bureau.
“Because Japan has a shorter history in this field compared with England, we do not think that we can make a perfect system quickly. But the success (of England’s system) has set us a good example, and we hope to follow it,” he said.
During a panel discussion at the symposium, which was also supported by the Justice Ministry, the Japanese Correctional Association and the British Embassy, one of the biggest problems pointed out was the shortage of prison space in Japan.
Tomiyama admitted that at present in some institutions a cell designed for one inmate holds two, and eight or nine in a cell meant for six.
Although adding floor and cell space may alleviate the overcrowding problem for now, the prison population is expected to continue increasing, said Tatsuya Ota, an assistant professor at Keio University.
“In the long run, we must reconsider the system of confinement for criminal offenses,” Ota said.
“Criminal punishment (prison terms) is easily handed down with no other choice (cited). This situation needs to be changed. For example, in Europe and the United States, some offenders are required to provide community service (in lieu of prison).”
And although the number of prisoners in Japan is increasing by thousands each year and is estimated at 76,000 today, prison staff levels have remained unchanged for years at around 17,000, Tomiyama said.
Kazumasa Akaike, a professor at Ryukoku University and a researcher at the school’s Corrections and Rehabilitation Research Center, pointed out that correctional institutions try to handle everything by themselves.
When there is a need to provide education for inmates, guards sometimes obtain a teaching license, while others also work as nurses to assist the few doctors in the institutions, he pointed out.
“I think it is time to reconsider the current system whereby everything is being done by the staff,” Akaike said.
“Instead of having the staff get a teaching license, why not get the education ministry involved? For medical issues, why not get the health ministry to help out?”
In response to the various questions and suggestions, Tomiyama outlined a set of proposals on prison reform put forth by the Correctional Policy Reform Committee, a special task force of the Justice Ministry formed in 2003.
First, he said, the system must be reformed to ensure prisoners are rehabilitated and efforts are truly made to aid their return to society.
Second, prison staff reforms are needed, including an increase in their numbers, and maybe eventual private-sector involvement in management.
And third, a more transparent correctional policy is needed whereby more information is made open to the public.