National / Social Issues

Female prison guards form dance group to improve profession's image

by Yuri Iwasaki

Kyodo

A group of correctional officers is going above and beyond the call of duty by forming a dance group in an effort to shake off the image associated with their chosen profession.

M-girls, which boasts five female members from the Mine Rehabilitation Program Center in Yamaguchi Prefecture, is the brainchild of the correctional facility’s first female administrative manager, Hiromi Kobayashi.

When they take to the stage, the women trade in their prison blues for racier outfits in a bid to change the public’s grim perception of prison guards. They also hope to lure more female recruits to offset the high job turnover at the first-ever penal institution of its kind in the country.

With the capacity to hold 800 female inmates — the most in Japan — and 500 male inmates, the prison is operated through jointly by public- and private-sector entities. The facility, which opened in April 2007 in Honshu, is aimed at rehabilitating inmates into society and lower the rate of recidivism.

“We wanted to do something you would never think that a prison would even try doing,” said Kobayashi, 46, when asked about her idea to form M-girls last year.

The group, whose members range in age from 21 to 33, was a hit with the local community when it performed for the first time last year at a karaoke competition, dancing to songs from Japanese idol girl group AKB48.

M-girls has since taken part in other festivals, as well as exhibitions hosted by the prison, where products manufactured by the inmates are sold. They danced at an event last November in Hiroshima and at the correctional center in May.

“We have forged close ties with local residents, and I think people now feel closer to prison guards,” said the 33-year-old leader of M-girls, who declined to be named due to the nature of her work. “It became a chance for me to know the sides of my coworkers that I don’t get to know through everyday work,” she said.

According to the Justice Ministry, about 30 percent of female corrections officers leave their jobs in less than three years — twice the rate of their male counterparts. Although the total number of inmates has been declining since 2007, the number of female inmates remains steady, resulting in a higher percentage of female inmates nationwide.

This means there are fewer female correctional officers to cope with an overcrowded population at the 10 facilities nationwide that house female prisoners, the ministry said.

Kobayashi said she is hopeful M-girls can help turn the tide.

“I hope the dance crew will improve the reclusive image people often have of prisons and serve as a forum where female prison guards — for whom the turnover rate is high due to the tough work involved — can share their concerns.”

In the next three years, the ministry aims to slash the high turnover by half and add 200 more female prison guards nationwide. With any luck, the best moves are yet to come from the M-girls dance crew.