National / Social Issues

Life inside a juvenile correction center

Young offenders are encouraged to acknowledge the crimes they have committed before learning how to survive in the outside world after their release

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Surrounded by lush greenery with a tranquil silence hanging in the air, it’s easy to forget you’re standing inside a juvenile correctional facility in western Tokyo — at least until you notice the walls surrounding the property that completely shut the center off from the outside world.

The Tama Juvenile Training School is one of the country’s oldest and largest reformatories. Built in 1923, the facility is currently home to about 150 juvenile offenders, their ages ranging from 17 to around 20.

Yosuke Saito is one such resident. The 20-year-old has a checkered past, spending time in various facilities for offenses such as car theft and assault. Saito’s most recent brush with the law — in which he coaxed money from the elderly by pretending to be a relative over the phone — has left him serving time in a correctional center for the first time.

“Many of my friends have been in and out of correctional facilities,” Saito says. “In fact, you could say it’s lucky I’ve avoided them until now.”

Saito’s mother divorced his father when he was very young, raising three children on her own. She often worked night shifts to make ends meet, giving Saito ample opportunity to sneak out in the evenings and hang out with older boys.

Saito stopped going to elementary school in the third grade because his homeroom teacher often beat him for failing to do what was required.

He eventually returned, but by the time he was in his second year of junior high, he could almost count the number of days he attended class on two hands. His situation at home had also become more unstable, and his mother remarried a man he didn’t particularly like.

“Delinquency gave me a sense of freedom,” Saito says. “I even began to enjoy it. My mother tried to stop me, but our relationship was rocky by then and so I just ignored her.”

After graduating from junior high school, he landed a job as a laborer but began looking for ways to make some easy money after the company’s financial situation took a turn for the worse. He was then introduced to a group involved in ore-ore sagi (“It’s me” scams).

The group had a list of elderly targets and Saito was asked to make about 200 phone calls a day. He would pretend to be a son or grandson, and claim to have run into trouble that required an urgent payment to resolve.

Saito says he felt guilty at first because the elderly people he targeted sometimes reminded him of his grandmother. However, the leaders of the group told him to put guilt to one side if he really wanted to make money. “I was desperate to make money and, by then, there was no turning back,” Saito says. “I simply shut off all of my emotions and did it.”

Saito made ¥10 million from the scams, but the long arm of the law eventually caught up with him and he was arrested. He was 19 years old.

Focus on education

When a minor is arrested, he or she first appears before a family court judge, who makes a ruling on the juvenile’s culpability after considering such factors as the degree of delinquency and family environment.

After weighing the evidence presented at the hearing, the judge has the jurisdiction to send the youth to a foster home or a juvenile correctional center. In cases where heinous crimes have been committed by an offender aged 14 or older, the judge can order the youth to be tried as an adult in criminal proceedings. If convicted, the youth can be sentenced to a stretch in a juvenile prison.

Kazuharu Hayashi, a retired corrections official and an expert on education, says juvenile correctional facilities take a very different approach to young offenders than prisons. Correctional facilities attempt to educate young offenders and rehabilitate them back into society, while prisons merely act as a form of punishment.

“Many of these juveniles are pretty much just like any other minor … except they do tend to be a little more immature than average and have a hard time connecting with society and other people,” Hayashi says. “They basically need help to grow up.”

Fifty-two juvenile correctional facilities operate nationwide, including nine that have been specifically set up to cater to young girls. An offender’s age and the severity of the crime determine which correctional center he or she is sent to. The age of minors serving time in these facilities currently ranges from around 12 to 22. Minors suffering from physical or psychological problems are placed in medical reformatories, which house young adults aged under 26.

The number of minors serving time in correctional facilities nationwide has been dropping since 2000 and, according to a recent Justice Ministry white paper on crime, 3,193 juveniles were detained in 2013. Most minors serving time in correctional facilities are there because they have committed theft, fraud or assault.

Interestingly, the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders is lower than that of adults. In 2013, 46.7 percent of all arrests were repeat adult offenders, while 34.3 percent of all arrests were repeat juvenile offenders. “We believe minors can change,” Hayashi says. “It is our job to help them build and develop a strong character so that they do not return to their criminal ways and are able to each find happiness in their own way.”

In recent years, the government has been trying to improve transparency at correctional facilities nationwide.

In 2009, five officials at a Hiroshima correctional facility were arrested over allegations they had been physically abusing the juveniles on a daily basis. Between 2005 and 2009, the officials regularly slapped, punched and kicked the boys. They washed one minor with cold water in winter and forced him to wear a paper diaper, and refused to let another go to the bathroom for so long that he urinated in his pants. One of the officials wrapped sheets around a juvenile’s neck and instructed him to write a will.

These incidents sparked a major revision of the Juvenile Reformatory Law, which had remained almost untouched since it was enacted in 1948. The revisions will take effect from June 1.

To prevent abuse, the revised law aims to increase transparency in correctional facilities by setting up an independent panel to conduct inspections. What’s more, juveniles are now able to file a complaint directly to the minister of justice if they feel they have been abused.

“Transparency is important — not only to prevent abuse but to show the public what is actually going on inside these walls,” Hayashi says. “We wish to raise (public) awareness about correctional education, which is something that everyone needs to think about. To be honest, it’s disappointing to see that such an outcome couldn’t have been prevented on its own.”

Life after incarceration

Minors for the most part live in shared dorms in correctional facilities nationwide.

Kazuyuki Watanabe, a 20-year veteran at the Tama facility, says juveniles can still become physically or verbally aggressive. In such situations, they are usually placed in a small isolated room and given time to cool off. This space is not only used to punish the juveniles but also give them time to think about their actions.

“It gives the minors an opportunity to reflect on the crimes they committed or, perhaps, think about their life after their incarceration,” Watanabe says. “It is important to have some time to themselves so they don’t forget why they are here in the first place.”

The aim of a juvenile correctional center is to educate the offenders, offering counseling, vocational training and intellectual studies.

Minors are given an opportunity to get a high school certificate or become qualified in a variety of fields, from word and data processing to welding and driving a forklift.

Officials believe such education enables a juvenile offender to start a new life outside the walls of the correctional facility once they are released.

Watanabe says many young offenders have experienced traumatic lives as children, including child abuse and neglect.

“These minors have layer upon layer of complex emotions inside,” Watanabe says. “They need to be able to address that before looking at anything else. They need to be able to look inside themselves in order to see their true selves, and they need to talk honestly about what they are feeling.”

White socks, towels and T-shirts that have been washed by the minors hang in the hallways at the correctional center. Outside, meanwhile, are flower beds and vegetable gardens filled with potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes that are tended by the young offenders.

“Young offenders are used to enjoying the things that are right in front of them but farming is a great way to teach them that there are other ways to enjoy life,” Watanabe says. “It’s not an easy job but they enjoy learning how to grow vegetables — and also how to appreciate them.”

Correctional facilities put great emphasis on teaching young offenders to comprehend the magnitude of the crime they committed, going over what the victims and their families went through and teaching the minor about the true value of life.

Hayashi, who is now a part-time teacher on Juvenile Law at Waseda University, says correctional facilities use a variety of programs to teach young offenders about the value of life, putting minors in charge of raising an animal or growing a plant. Baby dolls are sometimes used to teach both male and female offenders what it feels like to be a parent.

Video footage from victims recounting how their children were murdered are played in the classrooms and, occasionally, relatives of the victims even visit the centers and talk directly to the minors.

“Time has stopped for many of these families since their loved ones were taken from them. It is extremely painful for these people to confront these young offenders,” says Hayashi, who also headed the Tama facility in 2008. “However, we believe it is extremely important for the juveniles to hear stories of their grief so that they don’t go back to society and victimize more people.”

For Saito, who has been in the Tama correctional center for about 18 months, his whole life has been turned upside-down.

“In the outside world, I was used to controlling people through violence, money and power,” Saito says. “I was stripped of those things when I came here. I relied on violence, money and power to solve problems and, without such weapons, I didn’t know how to interact with others in here.”

The young offender is now undergoing a series of programs to prepare him for the outside world. Like many minors in correctional facilities across the country, Saito expresses some reservations about life outside the walls of the center.

“There is so much temptation in the outside world and I am afraid of getting sucked into it,” Saito says. “However, I know that I won’t be so lucky if I mess up again. I will be locked up for a lot longer and that will be the end of the road for me.”

This is the final installment of a two-part series on juvenile crime. Read the first part titled “Shifting the scales of juvenile justice.”

‘Everyone changes by the time they leave’

Juvenile offenders in domestic correctional facilities are prohibited from discussing their personal lives with each other.

In general, they are prohibited from revealing their age, hometown and the crime they committed to prevent them from getting together again once they are released from the center, which could drag them back into a life of crime.

There is, however, one exception. Former juvenile drug addicts are allowed to talk freely about their past during their weekly group therapy sessions.

Shun Ota, an 18-year-old minor spending his first time in Tama Juvenile Training School, participates in one such session.

Ota had his first cigarette when he was in the fourth grade of elementary school. By fifth grade, he was stealing motorcycles and sniffing glue. He left home after graduating from junior high school, but mostly hung around his friends’ houses. He frequently assaulted people and became addicted to drugs, doing everything from prescription drugs and marijuana to cocaine and methamphetamine.

Ota’s family life is far from settled. His father is a former drug addict, his mother has had several brushes with the law and his brother is serving time in prison. His parents are now divorced.

“I didn’t want to join the meetings at first but now I’m really glad I did,” Ota says. “I no longer feel as if I’m alone. I used to think that I was the only one who is suffering but I now realize that others struggle in life as well. They are all trying to deal with their own issues and move forward.”

Masatoshi Ishii, a teaching official at the center, says drug rehabilitation programs in the past used to require a counselor to work through a textbook with a young offender on a one-on-one basis. Group therapy sessions were introduced a few years ago.

Each group contains five or six young offenders who generally lead the discussions, with an instructor or two present to provide guidance where necessary.

“By discussing their drug problems with each other, these juveniles realize that others suffer from the same issues,” Ishii says. “They are able to relate to one another and, as a result, are able to set common goals and come up with effective ways to quit drugs altogether.”

The correctional center at Tama currently has about 150 young offenders serving time within in its walls. The center runs special programs designed for drug addicts and sex offenders, but experts say that teachers work closely with minors on a personal basis to help them through the rehabilitation process and rejoin society. Officials generally believe juvenile offenders can change through education. However, it is difficult to build relationships with many juvenile offenders because many of them have been abused or have serious trust issues, Ishii says.

“Each child is different; there is no right or wrong answer,” Ishii says. “We just have to keep showing them that we are serious about trying to help them. Personally, I don’t think there is a child that is not able to change. Everyone changes to some degree by the time they leave.”

When Ota first entered the juvenile correctional facility after being convicted of robbery resulting in injury in 2014, the only thing on his mind was how he couldn’t wait to get out of there. He would frequently wonder what his friends were doing in the outside world and kept thinking of ways to look remorseful in the eyes of the officials at the center, pretending to be sorry for the crimes he committed. He didn’t care about anything or anyone, including himself, until his teacher came up to him one day and said, “You might have given up on yourself, but I won’t.”

“That was the first time I truly felt someone cared about me,” Ota says. “I realized that all of my past relationships were superficial — I either used others or found myself being used by others.”

This was a turning point for Ota. Now, more than a year later, Ota says he recognizes the pain and suffering he caused his victims. “I hurt these innocent people,” he says. “It was completely selfish of me and I imagine that they still suffer emotionally from my actions. I am glad I got caught when I did. If not, I probably would be a murderer by now.”

During his time inside the center, Ota has studied calligraphy because he says it “reflects a person’s soul.” He has also reached out to the Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center to seek support once he leaves the facility. What’s more, he has also been in touch with his family, who are waiting for him to come home.

“I would be lying if I said I had absolutely no concerns about my life after I get out but I don’t want to hurt people anymore,” Ota says. “I just want to protect the life I have now and the people around me.”

Yosuke Saito and Shun Ota are pseudonyms. Article 61 of the Juvenile Law prohibits the publication of personal information — including names and appearances — on convicts or purported criminals in their teens or younger.

A typical day in the life of a juvenile facility

07:00 Wake up

07:30 Get dressed Eat breakfast Do daily chores

09:00 Morning assembly

09:15 Educational activities

12:00 Lunch

13:00 Educational activities

18:00 Evening meeting Educational lectures

19:00 Study Diary writing

20:00 TV

21:00 Self-reflection

21:15 Bedtime

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