Shigeru Ono, a 49-year-old man fresh out of prison, was growing increasingly desperate.
In the four days since his release, Ono, not his real name, had spent half of the ¥250,000 he earned from prison labor during his 10-year incarceration. He used the money on travel, housing and food, as well as treatment for chronic back pain.
Seeking help, he visited a probation office and a local administrative office, but to no avail. He was worried he would be compelled to go back to crime to make ends meet.
In prison, however, Ono had heard from a fellow inmate about an organization that supports current and former prisoners and remembered the phone number. He placed a call and made an appointment with Hiroshi Igarashi, head of the nonprofit organization Mother House.
After talking with Ono, Igarashi, 50, agreed to support him, found him a place to stay and applied for public financial aid on his behalf.
Igarashi, a native of Tochigi Prefecture, is himself a former inmate. He has spent about 20 years in prison.
After dropping out of high school, Igarashi ran away from home. At the age of 18, he started to work and for a while led a relatively stable existence. His life took a turn for the worse, however, after he was forced to abandon his marriage plans because of opposition from his sweetheart’s parents. When he was 25, Igarashi was accused of raping a woman and sentenced to four years, although he denied the accusation.
Prison was “like a training school for criminals,” Igarashi recalls. Criminals were teaching their techniques to each other and “boryokudan” gangsters were scouting for prospective members, Igarashi said.
The turning point came when Igarashi encountered the Christian faith through a Japanese-Brazilian who was serving time in the same jail. Under the influence of that person, Igarashi began reading the Bible in prison.
In particular, Igarashi was struck by the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me,” addressed by Jesus Christ to a man persecuting the disciples of Jesus who was later to be known as the Apostle Paul. When Igarashi read this phrase, he said, he felt as if God was admonishing him: “Hiroshi, Hiroshi, why do you commit sins?”
Moved by this experience, he wrote down all the sins he could remember having committed and was surprised at how many there were. While in prison, he started to correspond with a Christian believer and meet with them from time to time in the visitor’s room. As he continued these exchanges, he resolved to make a fresh start in life.
In the meantime, he refused to engage in prison labor, professing reluctance to work with people who had no plans to start over in life. As a result, he was repeatedly thrown into solitary confinement.
One day, a prison officer suggested Igarashi work in a nursing facility for elderly inmates to prove the “Christian love” he claimed to embrace.
Although at first he found it difficult to help his fellow inmates change their diapers or go to the toilet, he eventually overcame the problem.
“A person with whom I was in correspondence advised me to think (of them) as my parents, and then I could do it.”
His experience in prison convinced Igarashi that the overly restrictive and harsh conditions inmates endured were making it difficult for them to return to society. Although the prison provided rehabilitation programs, they appeared to be ineffective.
After being discharged in late 2011, he founded Mother House the following spring to help inmates re-enter society.
Just before Christmas last year, many Christmas cards arrived at Mother House for delivery to prison inmates. Requested by Igarashi, an orphanage in Sendai agreed to hold an exchange between its children and prisoners.
“What is most frightening in prison is solitude,” Igarashi says. “To drop the perception that society has no expectations for us or that we are worthless, we need to relate with society and communicate with people.”
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