National / Crime & Legal

Hunt for inmate continues after escape from open prison in Ehime Prefecture

JIJI, Kyodo

Thousands of police officers and 16 police dogs have been hunting in vain for an inmate who escaped from a an open prison in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, keeping investigators and local residents on edge.

Despite a police dragnet spread across Mukaishima island, where he is believed to be hiding, the inmate has been on the run since he escaped from Matsuyama Prison’s Oi shipyard on April 8.

“I’m not sure if he is still on the island,” said a senior police officer. “But we don’t have proof that he is not on the island so we need to maintain the current level of investigation.”

Up to 1,200 police officers were mobilized per day to find Tatsuma Hirao, 27, but the number is now down to about 450.

Police officers continue to stand guard at every road that connects to the Hiroshima Prefecture island while they also keep close watch at ferry stations. The Justice Ministry has dispatched officials to guard local day cares, kindergartens and elementary and junior high schools.

“I go to and from school with my children every day,” said a 29-year-old mother of two. “We’re trying to avoid letting them play outside, so they are stressed out.”

The shipyard has 20 inmates, none of whom have committed serious crimes. The fugitive was imprisoned for theft and other crimes.

The dockyard workplace inmates live in unlocked rooms and work with employees of a private-sector shipbuilding company.

There are a total of four such facilities across Japan, including a farm at a prison in Abashiri in Hokkaido Prefecture, northern Japan.

Following the incident, the Justice Ministry is considering a plan to utilize GPS to monitor inmates serving sentences in open prisons.

But it is not easy to determine how much surveillance should be strengthened, as facilities are designed to rehabilitate through prison work in an open environment, sources familiar with the situation said.

The ministry held a meeting Thursday to review the security and surveillance systems of such facilities.

The GPS surveillance system has been introduced at five prison facilities, including one in Kagoshima Prefecture where inmates work at a huge farm, to track their whereabouts through a GPS device they wear.

Other measures that have been proposed to prevent inmates from escaping from open prisons call for introducing a face authentication system and increasing the number of prison officers as well as security cameras.

After further discussions, the ministry may study the possibility of introducing some of these measures at open prisons across the country, the sources said.

Such prisons were established with the aim of encouraging inmates to become self-reliant.

According to 2011-2016 data, the proportion of returning reoffenders to the Matsuyama prison facility stood at 6.9 percent, far lower than the national average of 41.4 percent.

A ministry official said such low-security facilities give “inmates many opportunities to meet ordinary people, helping them to integrate into society.”

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa told a news conference Friday that her ministry will swiftly consider measures aimed at preventing other escapes but stopped short of suggesting a target launch date.