The number of inmates and detainees at prisons, juvenile prisons and detention centers across Japan at the end of 2019 is believed to have fallen below 50,000 for the first time in 23 years, according to a Justice Ministry survey.

The number, which totaled 50,578 at the end of 2018, stood at 48,802 as of the end of October 2019.

“There are various factors, such as (changes in) social and economic situations,” an official of the ministry’s Correction Bureau said on the reasons for the downtrend, citing, among other things, a fall in the number of crimes in the country. The number of crimes recognized by law-enforcement authorities has been on a declining trend since peaking in 2002.

The number of inmates and detainees topped 80,000 in 2006, causing a shortage of capacity at prisons and detention centers. At present, no prisons or detention facilities have a shortage of capacity, and the occupancy rate stands at slightly below 60 percent of overall national capacity.

The Sasebo Prison in Nagasaki Prefecture, was closed in March 2019 and became a detention center branch. The Kurobane Prison in Tochigi Prefecture will be shut down in March 2022.

On top of aging of the facilities, a fall in the number of prisoners has been a factor behind the closures, the official said.

Meanwhile, more and more inmates are growing old. The proportion of inmates aged 60 or over rose to 19.6 percent at the end of 2018 from 10.3 percent at the end of 2002.

The number of inmates that need support when going to the toilet or when bathing, or are unable to participate in group activities, is on the rise, requiring more prison officers to help them.

Prisons across the country are working to make their facilities barrier-free and install handrails in bathrooms. Some have installed nursing care workers and other special employees to take care of elderly inmates and assist prison officers.

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