In May 2006, the government revised the prison law in the first attempt at broad reform since 1908. The Law Concerning Penal Institutions and the Treatment of Sentenced Inmates, as the legislation is formally known, went into effect June 7.

The prison system has long been criticized by not only the United Nations and other governments but also domestic and international human rights groups, lawyers and law enforcement officials for violating the basic human rights of inmates and for cruel and unusual punishment, including torture.

Well-documented accounts of prisoner abuse by police and prison guards are legion. Experts say that unlike prisons in other countries, where the goal is often to rehabilitate and re-educate, the primary purpose of Japanese prisons is to force inmates to reflect on their misdeeds.

Following are some basic aspects of the penal system:

Why did it take nearly 100 years for prison law reforms, and why now?

While domestic human rights groups and progressive lawyers within the Japan Federation of Bar Associations have long criticized the prison system for being too harsh, there is a long-standing belief in Japan that a person who has been arrested for a crime must automatically be guilty and therefore deserving of punishment. Thus, politicians faced little pressure to change the system.

However, in recent decades, Japan’s prisons have begun to draw the attention of international human rights groups, especially after foreigners were arrested, detained and often physically abused by police and guards. Increased media coverage of the plight of prisoners meanwhile provided a catalyst for change in public opinion and led to calls for reform.

Abuses drew acute exposure and a harsh public outcry after the excesses, some fatal, at the hands of guards at Nagoya Prison in fall 2002. The outcry led the Justice Ministry to form an expert panel in March 2003 to draft reforms that resulted in last year’s legislative changes.

How many inmates are there at present?

According to the Justice Ministry, at the beginning of 2007 there were 77,932 people incarcerated at 59 prisons, eight juvenile prisons, seven detention houses, 53 juvenile training schools and 52 juvenile classification homes. The vast majority were convicts, while about one in seven were awaiting trial at detention centers or police holding cells.

What is daily life in prison like?

Most prisoners are kept in single cells. Once a convict begins a prison term, as opposed to being held in a police cell or detention center, there is a 6:40 a.m. daily wakeup call, followed by 20 minutes to wash and put away the cell’s futon.

Inspection is at 7 a.m., followed by breakfast at 7:10. Work in the prison factory, where inmates produce furniture and other simple products for a meager wage, begins at 7:50 and ends at 4:30 p.m., with a 40-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks. Dinner is from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and prisoners have free time until lights out at 9 p.m.

What are the main criticisms of the international community about Japan’s prisons?

In May, the U.N. Committee Against Torture issued a report harshly criticizing Japan’s police and prison system.

The committee began by noting that the definition of torture, as provided by international treaties Japan has agreed to, has yet to be incorporated into domestic law — most notably the penal code.

The report also said Japan holds suspects for excessively long periods in police facilities, rather than detention centers, in what is called the “daiyo kangoku” (substitute prison) system. Too often, said the report, medical care also is inadequate.

Suspects in police custody are also believed to have received extremely limited access to legal counsel and been subject to grueling interrogation sessions.

In other countries, especially in the United States and Europe, some prisons have dormitory facilities for families, who can visit loved ones in prison for up to two days and three nights, or conjugal rooms for couples. Does Japan have anything similar?

No, prison visits by relatives are strictly controlled, and there are strict time limits (often 30 minutes or less) on how long a family member can visit. During the visit, prisoners and the family members are always under the watchful eye of a guard.

What reasons have government officials given for the stern measures at prisons?

Officials argue the system prevents the kind of widespread violence among inmates found in other countries’ correctional facilities. Thus, though rigid, it should be viewed as protecting the prisoners’ right to safety during incarceration.

Proponents of the current system argue that regardless of whether it’s a police holding cell, detention center or prison, the inmate will be treated humanely and fully in line with the law.

However, human rights activists complain that rules at police jails and detention centers are vague, inviting abuse.

In the U.S., privately run prisons are growing more common, and have been widely said by human rights lawyers to violate prisoners’ human rights. Are privately run prisons being considered in Japan?

Japan’s first privately run prison, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, will soon begin accepting 500 male and 500 female first-time offenders. The prison has a 51 billion yen, 20-year contract with the government. Inmates will be offered training in computer skills and hospital clerical work.

The reason Japan is considering the new approach is that prisons are overcrowded. As a result, many people who under the law should be incarcerated in prisons are actually being kept in detention centers, where the rules and oversight are often less transparent than in a prison.

Do foreign prisoners receive the same treatment as Japanese inmates?

In theory, they are supposed to, although there are certain rules regarding what they can and cannot have access to. For example, if they request an English-language book, a Japanese translation of the book also must be available.

Language is also sometimes an issue. This reporter has met on several occasions with Western inmates at Kyoto Prison and spoken to them in English in the presence of a guard who took down every word.

However, some foreign visitors are reportedly told they must address the prisoner in Japanese, not in their native language.

What are the major changes under the new law?

Two of the most important changes grant prisoners the right to receive visitors other than immediate family members, and institute an anonymous “suggestion box” for complaints of unfair treatment by guards.

In addition, a new organization called the Board of Visitors for Inspections of Penal Institution will be set up to establish panels reviewing each penal institution and be given complete control over the suggestion boxes, which guards are not allowed to access.

There will be four to 10 members per board, depending on the size of the institution in question. Members will be appointed by the justice minister for their “deep insight and high integrity,” according to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and all boards will include a local attorney as well as a physician.

Still, some human rights activists worry that notes intended to be seen only by outside board members will in fact be leaked to guards, and prisoners will be penalized if they complain.

Michael Fox, a Hyogo Prefecture-based American activist and expert on Japan’s penal system, and Toshio Sakamoto, a former prison guard who last month published the book “Keimusho no Ruru” (“Prison Rules”), say many prisons secretly award merits and demerits to keep prisoners in line.

Under the rules at Kobe Prison, for example, inmates have been awarded points for going one month without breaking any rules, or given 5,000 yen if they helped save the life of an inmate or prevented an escape, according to the book.

On the other hand, prisoners receive a demerit for things like growing their fingernails too long or speaking to guards without permission. Prisoners who failed to respond to guards’ commands quickly enough or talked to other inmates when speaking was prohibited received five demerits.

Under the new law, this system of merits and demerits is supposed to have been done away with.

The repercussions of the demerits are unclear, but human rights activists are concerned that inmates perceived by guards to be too out of line suffer from legally questionable punishments.

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