National / Crime & Legal

Tokyo Detention House, in spotlight after Carlos Ghosn's extended stay, rejects criticisms

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

The case against Nissan Motor Co.’s former Chairman Carlos Ghosn has recently put Japan’s controversial criminal justice and detention system in the spotlight, provoking calls for an overhaul of procedures that keep suspects in detention longer if they continue to deny allegations made against them.

Ghosn spent over four months at the Tokyo Detention House across two stints in the facility, until his second release on bail in late April. On Monday, supervisors at the facility disclosed to the media the realities of life behind bars and rejected criticism of its austere form of confinement. Officials declined to comment on specific cases, including that of Ghosn’s.

With a total floor space of 154,671 square meters, the prison in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, currently houses 1,758 inmates, 1,216 of whom are still awaiting trial, according to the officials who spoke to reporters during a tour. The facility is said to accommodate up to 3,010 inmates. A 7.5-square-meter solitary cell shown to The Japan Times and described as typical was tatami-floored and equipped with a short-legged table, a Japanese-style bedding set, a bookshelf, a sink and a toilet bowl by the window. A wooden partition offers some privacy for inmates who prefer to cover the bottom part of their body while using the toilet.

Detainees can also request single-occupancy cells equipped with beds, which are available according to health issues or different lifestyle preferences, that measure 11.25 square meters. The officials said the detention house has 1,800 private cells. Larger rooms of about 23 square meters can accommodate up to six inmates.

There are no bars on inmates’ windows, with bulletproof glass used instead “so they don’t feel oppressed,” said Shigeru Takenaka, a warden at the facility.

Nevertheless, the inmates remain under constant guard, including while using the toilet in their rooms, as the cells have glass doors designed to ensure inmates are constantly visible. Takenaka said that such features are part of measures to prevent suicides, and that they also include faucets with buttons and rounded wall shelves that leave the inmates without any means of causing themselves harm.

“Suicides, alongside fires and escapes, are among the top three problems that penal institutions grapple with,” Takenaka said.

The warden said that despite such security measures, suicide attempts do occasionally occur at the Tokyo Detention House. Its staffers prevented one such attempt recently, in March. The jail saw heightened attention due to Ghosn’s lengthy confinement. But he was not the only foreigner held at the Tokyo Detention House.

According to the officials, there were 239 non-Japanese inmates from 38 countries in detention as of May 1, with 29.7 percent of them hailing from China, 11.7 percent from Vietnam and 10 percent from South Korea. Among other foreign inmates were those from countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

About 20 percent of inmates are held for theft and 18.4 percent for possession of stimulants, while only 5.4 percent are held for violation of immigration laws. Of the total, 1,612 inmates were men.

Inmates have access to news in foreign languages and can purchase newspapers in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, or can watch the day’s news on television — broadcast with a slight delay.

Daily routines differ between unsentenced and sentenced detainees, as the latter take part in diversion programs and work assignments, for example in the kitchen.

Each day unsentenced inmates wake up at 7 a.m. and get ready for a routine roll call 15 minutes later before breakfast at 7:25 a.m. Lunch break is set at 11:50 a.m. and the inmates are allowed a two-hour nap before dinner at 4:20 p.m., then another roll call at 4:40 p.m. Bedtime is set at 9 p.m. In the winter, inmates can take a shower or bathe twice a week. In the summer, they are allowed three such shower breaks a week.

Detainees are allowed to exercise for 30 minutes each day in solitary cells or at exercise yards with a capacity of up to 30 inmates.

According to the staffers, some inmates use the private exercise rooms for meditation or to bask in the sunshine as hand grippers for training are the only item they can take with them into the rooms. Jumping ropes, for example, or other flexible or sharp objects pose a suicide risk.

Regarding criticism of medical care in correctional institutions, the warden said that inmates at the Tokyo Detention House have access to medical care around the clock. The facility has nine full-time medical doctors and nursing staff, as well as some part-time workers, and examination rooms equipped to handle emergencies and one with a CT scanner. Inmates can request to be treated by a psychiatrist, Takenaka said.

Ghosn was first jailed on Nov. 19 and was held for 108 days until his first release on bail. During his detention he lost weight, prompting criticism over poor nutrition at the facility. Takenaka rejected such criticism, presenting a menu he said had been prepared carefully by nutritionists. Typical items included rice, soups, vegetables and fried food, with each meal being different. A group of about 30 sentenced inmates prepare meals at the facility three times each day. “The living conditions in which the inmates are held are of a sufficient standard,” Takenaka said.

However, the inmates do face a number of restrictions while in detention. They are not allowed to lie on the tatami mats and instead are required to remain seated most of the time. Takenaka says the rule helps staff notice medical emergencies.

The detention house also limits inmates’ communication with the outside world.

Inmates are allowed one visit per day except for weekends or holidays, although Takenaka was keen to stress that those scheduling restrictions are the result of a manpower shortage.

Inmates are prohibited from communicating with visitors in languages other than Japanese. Officials do dispatch interpreters to assist during visitations, though, they said. Some visitation rooms are also equipped with a system that enables inmates to communicate with lawyers remotely.

Concerns have been raised about housing suspects awaiting trial, like Ghosn, together with convicted inmates including those sentenced for serious crimes. But unsentenced inmates can still enjoy a degree of freedom, Takenaka said. For instance, the suspects are allowed to wear their own clothes and can spend up to ¥3,000 per day at a store at the facility. They can also send a letter per day, Takenaka added.

The warden acknowledged there was room for improvement in the facility’s operation and conditions, but noted, “we’re aware that if we upgraded the standard of living conditions, we would face criticism” for spending taxpayers’ money.