Should prison facilities be friendly to aging inmates or remain punitively hard for criminals?

It is a question that was faced by Asahikawa Prison in Hokkaido, which was remodeled and reopened earlier this year.

The three-story, reinforced concrete building has about 500 private cells, each equipped with a desk, chair, wooden bed, wall-mounted TV and automated wash basin.

The cells, each measuring about 270 cm by 270 cm, have white walls and plenty of light — far different from the typical image of jail.

For elderly inmates, steps in public areas now have ramps with handrails.

“When we shared a cell with others, we tended to start talking about crimes and our conversation sometimes went in a wrong direction,” said a male inmate in his 60s. “But I now spend more hours studying, preparing for the day I’ll be released.”

But the new prison has been criticized by victim support groups, which question whether criminals should be provided with facilities “almost like a hotel.”

Tamotsu Watanabe, a deputy director of the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, said, “Why are only the rights of perpetrators being protected?”

“Is it truly necessary to build such a facility using our tax money,” he added.

Watanabe’s 22-year-old daughter was stabbed to death in 2000, prompting him to join the association, which asserts that criminals’ human rights are protected more than their victims and next of kin.

Atsushi Yusa, director of Asahikawa Prison, disagreed, saying, “We believe the rehabilitation of inmates helps to realize a safer society and we’re making further efforts to better understand the importance of providing a proper environment for prisoners.”

Asahikawa, which reopened in February following the refurbishment, had 235 inmates as of October, of which about 70 percent were serving a sentence of at least 10 years, including those with life imprisonment.

Since their average age was 50.6, including the oldest at 88, the prison readied itself to accommodate more aged inmates in the near future.

Now, Asahikawa Prison may be a pioneering case, with the number of elderly inmates in Japan increasing.

According to a government white paper, some 10 percent of people jailed in 2014 were 65 or older, a fivefold jump over the past two decades.

The Justice Ministry also estimates that some 13 percent of inmates aged 60 or older have signs of dementia.

“The burden for prison guards has been increasing,” an official at the ministry said, pointing to the need for detention facilities to respond to the growing needs of elderly prisoners.

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