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So it’s come to this: “Prison is heaven, freedom is hell.” A country of which this can reasonably be said is in sad straits. Can it be reasonably said of Japan? It’s the subhead of a recent article in Shukan Shincho magazine whose main title is “Happy prison life.” Prison life is not happy, unless in comparison to something worse. What can be worse than deprivation of freedom? Deprivation, perhaps, of the most basic material needs — food, clothing, shelter. That’s writer Toshio Sakamoto’s point. A growing number of people, he says, are committing crimes with no other motive than the desire to land in the relative security of prison.

It’s a difficult claim to quantify with precision, but Sakamoto, a former prison official, notes that since Japan’s economic bubble burst 20 years ago the prison population — roughly 64,000 as of 2010 — has been both rising and aging. The average age of incoming prisoners, once in the late 30s, is now closer to 50. First-time prisoners in their 60s, he says, are no longer unusual. Some of them are educated. Some had respectable careers. What are they doing in jail?

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