Photographer captures daily life inside penal system

by Jiro Hashimoto

Kyodo

Photographer Hitomi Toyama has recently published a book of photos she has taken over the past two decades revealing different aspects of life inside prisons throughout Japan.

The book, titled “Nippon no Keimusho 30″ (“30 Japanese Prisons”), includes a picture of a prisoner holding a baby she just gave birth to inside a prison and another of synchronized swimming performed by inmates at a juvenile correction institution.

“I think prisons are a microcosm of Japanese society and we can see Japan from the inside,” Toyama said. “I hope this will give people the opportunity to think about ways to reduce crime.”

In the book, which was published in March by Kobunsha Co., the prisoners’ faces are all obscured by mosaics to protect their identity. Yet all the photos show prisoners who are trying hard to rebuild their lives.

“Once they are released, prisoners will come back into our society. So I would like people to know about their real lives and know that they are trying hard to atone for their crimes,” she said.

It is the first collection of photos taken inside prisons or correctional institutions, according to the Justice Ministry.

The book also has a picture of a guard waking inmates at Tokyo’s Fuchu Prison in the morning and others of prisoners making glass and wood artifacts using traditional techniques, as well as receiving vocational training in hairdressing and sewing.

Toyama, who has not disclosed her age, also shot photos of such events as a summer festival in which female prisoners dressed in “yukata” summer kimono are dancing and a sports festival in which prisoners are tossing a guard in celebration of their team’s victory.

“I tried to be persistent,” she said, explaining that she continued to shoot from the time when prisoners woke up in the morning until they went to bed.

Toyama first took photos of prisoners at Iwakuni Prison in Yamaguchi Prefecture in fall 1989, when she visited there for a weekly magazine. She said she was intrigued by “the unknown world” of prisons and has visited more than 40 since then.

It sometimes took more than two months before she was granted permission to take photos after filing her application.

In the course of her work over the years, Toyoma also learned that the number of elderly prisoners has been increasing.

She said there are many elderly people who repeatedly return to prison because they have no other place to go. This is one serious problem facing Japanese society, she said, calling for a firm system to be established to help them return to society.

Toyama said she kept shooting photos because “I thought somebody has to tell people about this.”