Ex-con on mission to tame recidivism rate

Some prisoners given no help on re-joining society

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Hiroshi Igarashi remembers feeling like a dinosaur when he was released from prison in 2011 after nine years behind bars. He had no idea how to use IC cards and phones as train tickets. Even the self-serve “drink bar” system in restaurants struck him as an utter enigma.

Feeling bewildered by changes in society is nothing unusual. In fact, it’s a feeling experienced by the majority of long-term inmates once they are released, and a major problem in reducing the crime rate, according to Igarashi.

“We can’t just fly solo without being taught basic knowledge about what’s happening in the world” outside the prison walls, Igarashi, 49, said at a recent event at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Behind the problem, Igarashi explained, is the fact that the current prison system only allows inmates released on parole to consult probation officers, while those who are denied parole but serve out their terms are tossed back into the world without any transitional help.

This lack of support, however, is only one example of a raft of critical flaws in the prisoner rehabilitation system, which is plagued by rampant allegations of “inhumane” treatment and alarmingly high recidivism rates.

As if to justify Igarashi’s calls for more robust transitional assistance, a 2012 white paper by the Justice Ministry showed that 51.6 percent of those released in 2007 who had no subsequent contact with probation officers were back in prison within five years. The rate for those released into the care of probation officers was 29.3 percent.

A former repeat offender himself, Igarashi said he was arrested three times and incarcerated for a total of 20 years. He adamantly refuses to disclose what he was jailed for because doing so might make it easier for his victims to be traced.

But he doesn’t hesitate to open up about his time in prison because he believes it’s his mission to cast light on the situation facing former inmates and the flaws of Japan’s correction and rehabilitation regime.

Igarashi now runs a small charity group aimed at helping marginalized former prisoners reintegrate with society, galvanized by the conviction that it’s his role to raise awareness of the “horrendous” situation in prison and to help tame recidivism.

His group, Mother House, counts seven former offenders among its ranks. They routinely dine together to update each other on their new lives.

The charity is supported by about 90 philanthropists who are keen to help ex-inmates re-enter mainstream society.

These supporters and donors include lawyers, journalists, counselors and university students. Their main activities include exchanging letters with inmates and helping those released find a place to live and apply for welfare.

If inmates in their correspondence express a desire for help from Mother House after being released, Igarashi scrutinizes the letters and discusses whether to accept the request.

The key to assessing the sincerity of a prisoner’s vow of repentance, he said, is not how beautifully crafted their prose is. Overemphasizing contrition could be an attempt to curry favor with guards, who have the authority to censor letters, he explained.

But if inmates recount their misdemeanors in excruciating detail and make no secret of their dissatisfaction with past criminal actions, that’s when Igarashi decides to give them a chance.

“Given the situation in prisons, it’s almost impossible that inmates have nothing to complain about,” he said.

After his third arrest, Igarashi was eventually transferred to Gifu Prison, which he said is known for housing some of the most hard-core, incorrigible repeat offenders. He had previously spent time behind bars in Shizuoka and Tokyo.

Igarashi denounced Japan’s prisons as a “breeding ground for criminals,” a sarcastic reference to the justice system’s poor correctional efforts.

For one thing, tardiness pervades the way medical treatment is administered, he said. It’s only when inmates develop extremely severe symptoms that they are allowed to see a doctor and receive proper care.

While in jail, Igarashi was given nursing duties and cared for fellow inmates, particularly the elderly, infirm and mentally handicapped. They were mistreated as well, he recalled, with patients often verbally harassed by guards.

Some prison guards treat inmates as almost subhuman, point-blank refusing to hear their complaints or deal with their pent-up frustration, he said.

“Being repressed all the time makes inmates prone to fights, which is one way to vent their anger,” Igarashi said. “The worst thing about this is that it prevents them from paying undivided attention to their own rehabilitation.”

Now a devout Christian, Igarashi, who recently got married and whose wife is pregnant with his first child, says he has never been happier and is truly thankful that God has given a “nefarious villain” like himself a chance to reflect on his misdeeds, repent and start afresh.

“I believe my coming forward and speaking out like this will empower many former convicts to follow suit and join me,” he said, “so hopefully they can stop feeling displaced and move forward.”