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Employment opportunities for prison inmates have been severely hit by the nation’s prolonged economic slump, and sales of the goods they produced are falling, according to a Justice Ministry report.

The number of inmates engaged in manufacturing grew to some 51,000 at the end of fiscal 2001, up from 35,700 in fiscal 1992. Included in that figure are about 31,000 prisoners now involved in subcontracted work, such as carpentry, dressmaking and metal processing, according to the report by the ministry’s Corrections Bureau.

Fiscal 2001 saw 226 contracts or orders canceled, affecting some 3,500 inmates. That is the largest number since the bursting of the asset-inflated bubble economy in the early 1990s, it said.

Companies had benefited from low production costs after concluding contracts with prisons, but many moved their production bases abroad as part of efforts to seek lower costs, it said.

The report notes one example in which an underwear maker in Shikoku moved its factory to China in October. The move caused 320 prisoners to lose their jobs.

It also says the income to national coffers from such work fell to 9.2 billion yen in the last fiscal year, which ended March 31. In 1992, the figure was 15.3 billion yen.

Prisoners who serve terms requiring labor must work 40 hours a week. Work sharing — in which a job is shared and working hours per inmate are reduced — thus becomes impossible, officials said.

Prison officials are now making efforts to conclude new contracts, but many of the jobs offer low pay or involve unskilled labor. “It is hard to find challenging jobs for prisoners,” one ministry official said.

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