• The Associated Press


Death-row inmates in the nation’s prison system are confined to tiny cells with little access to sunlight or exercise, a gross violation of basic human rights, according to a lawyer group citing a recent study carried out with cooperation from prison authorities.

The survey, the first to study the treatment of death-row inmates through a questionnaire, was carried out by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and polled 79 inmates on death row as of Jan. 11, the association said.

The 58 inmates who responded — 54 men, three women and one who remained anonymous — were all held in solitary confinement, many of them in an 8-sq.-meter cell with no view of the outside world, according to the study.

The inmates were allowed to exercise alone for about 30 minutes two to three times a week, but more than half said they exercised on rooftops or indoors in sites the study described as “bird cages.”

The study also found that some inmates were placed under 24-hour video surveillance.

Surveillance is necessary for prison staff to make sure inmates don’t attempt suicide, according to the Justice Ministry, which cooperated in the study.

About a quarter of the inmates polled said they had no regular visitors.

One hadn’t had a visitor for 17 years, while 11 said they have had no visitors for more than a year.

Executions are rare. Two inmates were hanged in 2004, including a man convicted of slashing eight children to death in an attack on an Osaka elementary school in 2001.

But human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the system. The hangings come without notice, and the inmate’s next of kin and the media aren’t informed until after the prisoner is dead.

Justice Ministry official Kenichi Matsunaga said he couldn’t comment on specifics of the survey but said the ministry would use the findings “to improve conditions, if necessary.”

A four-year moratorium on capital punishment was lifted in 1993, but the government refused to publicly acknowledge executions until 1998. The Diet is currently debating a bill that would ease some restrictions on death-row convicts, including allowing nonfamily members to visit.

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