‘Prison idols’ singing duo helping inmates get back on life’s track

by

Kyodo

A female singing duo, who for years have been performing live concerts at Japanese prisons and encouraging inmates to reform their ways to successfully reenter society, have come quite a way since their days of nervousness onstage.

At an event earlier this year, the group known as Paix2 (pronounced pay-pay) crooned for an audience of nearly 900 clean-shaven men, who sat eerily quiet as they watched the women perform at Yokohama Prison.

Megumi Ikatsu, 40, and Manami Kitao, 38, known in Japan’s correctional circles as “prison idols,” sang nine songs during the 75-minute morning show in the prison grounds, receiving warm applause from the men clad in light green work uniforms.

Their talks between songs were comical and at times emotional — but the two women spoke confidently to the inmates, who were basically only allowed to respond to the pair’s greetings and clap for the performance.

They even asked the inmates to use their work wages to “support” Paix2 by buying the group’s album when they get out of prison, prompting laughter and applause from many of them.

Before one lively tune, inmates got the green light from senior officers to join the women in raising their fists along with the melody.

But times have certainly changed.

The pair did their first prison concert in their home prefecture of Tottori in December 2000.

Earlier that year, Paix2 had made their debut on an independent label. When the duo took part in a police public relations event in which they served as local “police chiefs” for a day, officials suggested they perform their songs for inmates.

But when they stood on stage at Tottori Prison, they were so nervous facing several hundred glum-faced inmates that their hands shook as they held the microphones.

“We didn’t really know what we were getting into at first,” Kitao recalled. “Until then we had been singing mainly in front of children … so I was thinking the only difference is that we would be singing in front of adults and that it would be a good learning experience doing a stage performance.”

“I was hoping the inmates were enjoying hearing our songs, but I was wondering until the very end whether it was really okay for us to be singing and doing a concert (there),” Ikatsu said. “We were overwhelmed by the atmosphere (of the prison).”

After the show, they never thought they would perform at a prison again.

However, after hearing the positive feedback in comments from the inmates who had watched them perform, the women performed three more prison concerts — one in Tottori Prefecture and two in nearby Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Paix2 had made their major debut and their management team decided to expand their prison concert activities nationwide. Word about their performances inside the walls spread from prison to prison, and the duo never looked back.

Paix2, whose name comes from the French word for peace, have performed at all prisons and most juvenile reformatories across Japan.

Ikatsu and Kitao have in the course earned the trust of officials at correctional institutions. The justice minister appointed them as volunteer probation officers in September 2014 and as rehabilitation support officers in April 2015.

Kazuhiro Yasuhara, director of the Classification and Education Division at Yokohama Prison, has known the two women since 2001 and has great respect for them.

“Their ability to contribute to the rehabilitation of prison inmates seems to be improving over the years,” Yasuhara said. “They have very detailed knowledge and understanding about the inside of correctional institutions and are trying to build a safe Japan by doing what only Paix2 can do.”

Ikatsu said the idea at first was to give inmates who normally live under strict conditions a way to relax through music.

However, their thinking evolved after speaking with many prison officials as they came to understand that behind each inmate are victims and their families. They then began talking seriously to inmates about the gravity of their crimes and the pain inflicted on victims in the hope that they might reform their ways.

“I think we’re in a good position to be a bridge between the inside of prisons and people who serve as volunteer probation officers who most often have not come into contact with inmates like we have,” Ikatsu said.

Kitao noted that while the overall number of crime cases has been decreasing, the incidence of repeat offenders is not declining. The biggest reason, she believes, is the difficulty of those released from prison finding work.

“It may be natural for people to feel uneasy about working with those with a criminal record, but I think that accepting them will actually lead to a drop in repeat offenses … because there are those who truly regret what they’ve done to their victims and want to start over,” she said.

Their manager, Hajime Katayama, said that while Paix2 may not be able to influence all inmates they sing and talk to, they play a significant role in showing them how to lead a better life.

“The power of our prison concerts is that it could trigger the moment in which people flip the inner switch and change themselves,” Katayama said. “It could be one or maybe five out of the people who watched the concert today, but it would be nice if someone thought they have to change something about themselves.”

Yokohama Prison’s Yasuhara said he noticed a change in inmates even before the concert in late January.

After notices for the concert were posted in the prison’s multipurpose hall in early January, the inmates’ conduct improved, he said, albeit because those found in violation of disciplinary rules would not be allowed to attend the event.

There have also been signs that former inmates changed their ways after seeing Paix2 perform in prison, as a handful of them come to watch their live concerts after their release.

The singers told the audience at Yokohama Prison that they will hold their 15th anniversary concert in Tottori Prefecture in June and urged those who have been released by then to come.

Their big dream is to one day be able to create, with the cooperation of collaborators, a facility that accepts women and children who have nowhere to go after being released from correctional institutions and help them make the transition back into society.