National / Crime & Legal

Spread of COVID-19 in Japanese prisons spurs calls for releases

by Magdalena Osumi

STAFF WRITER

As coronavirus infections continue to spread nationwide and grave risks loom for detainees in correctional and detention facilities, judicial authorities are stepping up measures to prevent a petri-dish effect like that aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where more than 700 people became infected with COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus has already affected three correctional facilities — in Osaka, Tokyo and Hokkaido — where a total of 10 people have tested positive, putting staff and inmates at risk.

Concerns are rising among authorities and rights groups that an exponential spread of the virus in such facilities would eventually lead to staff shortages and problems in accessing medical care.

Japan is not granting compassionate release of inmates, unlike countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, where hundreds of prisoners have been freed over fears they were vulnerable to the coronavirus.

After it was confirmed April 5 that a correctional officer at the Osaka Detention House, which houses trial defendants as well as convicted inmates, was infected, the Justice Ministry ordered detainees who had come in contact with the person to be placed in solitary rooms and prison officials under quarantine at home.

Within the following two weeks, seven other workers there tested positive for the coronavirus.

A Justice Ministry official from the Correction Bureau who oversees correctional institutions said that three officers at the Osaka facility found to have COVID-19 as of April 10 may have come into contact with 132 workers and 60 inmates.

“The most important thing is to prevent transmission to those who haven’t been exposed to the virus, so we have made it a priority to separate them from those who have been likely affected by the coronavirus,” the official said.

All 60 inmates who had contact with the infected officers have been placed in solitary rooms, according to officials. Correctional institutions are also urging inmates to practice good hygiene to avoid viral transmissions and are asking families and friends who feel under the weather to refrain from visiting, to prevent them from bringing the virus into the facility.

But the Osaka case shows that such facilities are not fully prepared for in-house outbreaks. The ministry official said the Osaka Detention House is already receiving assistance from fill-in workers dispatched from other correctional facilities. Depending on how the situation unfolds, some facilities may continue to struggle with staff shortages, and detainees may face the possibility of their trial or bail request being postponed, the official said.

“This is the first time we have faced an emergency of this kind,” he said.

Infections have also been confirmed at other correctional facilities. One officer at a prison in Tsukigata in Hokkaido and a defendant awaiting trial at the Tokyo Detention House, where former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn spent four months before his dramatic escape while on bail, have also tested positive for COVID-19.

Similar risks loom for other detention facilities under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry, including those where people are held for unlawful entry into Japan and are awaiting deportation or have pending asylum applications.

Although no infections had been reported in immigration facilities as of Monday, the coronavirus risk has prompted growing calls for the release of such detainees.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations issued a statement April 15 calling on the authorities to alleviate the problem by granting detainees special or temporary permission to reside in Japan.

As part of preventive measures, immigration officials have been placing all new detainees under quarantine to prevent imported transmissions and are allowing for provisional release of some detainees held in migrant detention.

“The practice of releasing detainees for health reasons isn’t new, but we are offering more flexibility due to the coronavirus threat,” an official from the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) said Friday.

But rights groups are urging more proactive support for detainees, fearing that existing policies will fall short of what is needed to prevent in-house clusters and ensure adequate medical care for detainees.

Data from the agency shows that around 1,200 people are currently detained in such facilities. At least 20 from the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, have been granted temporary release as a precautionary measure, according to support groups.

The agency official said those who have been granted such permission won’t need to return to detention while the state of emergency declared by the prime minister is in effect.

But Eri Ishikawa, board chairwoman of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), stresses that such information is often inaccessible to detainees who cannot read Japanese messages from the government or don’t have a phone number through which officials can inform them of such options.

“Under the circumstances, I believe the officials should allow for release of as many detainees as possible,” Ishikawa said, noting that around half of the non-Japanese now held in detention are seeking asylum in Japan.

The rights group Amnesty International Japan said migration-related detention should not be considered justifiable amid the current crisis, given that most borders are closed in efforts to contain the outbreak.

“With deportations being inadmissible, detention in relation to immigration lacks its legitimate purpose to detain irregular migrants,” group representative Toshiki Higuchi said.

Higuchi stressed that inadequate access to medical care during the coronavirus pandemic could violate immigration detainees’ statutory right to health.

Ishikawa also worries that a lack of full-time doctors at some immigration centers may pose a challenge to efforts to contain a potential outbreak at such facilities, which are at risk of becoming large-scale clusters. According to supporters, shared spaces and often poorly ventilated rooms make detention facilities where detainees share sinks, showers and cells the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus.

Medical care in detention centers in Japan has been widely criticized at home and abroad for poor standards and responses to emergencies. The ISA’s commissioner, Shoko Sasaki, acknowledged the problem last year and said that “we don’t think the care provided is sufficient and there are further improvements to be made.”

But it is not just people who remain in detention that may struggle with access to adequate medical care and assistance. JAR’s Ishikawa is concerned that non-Japanese on provisional release will be left in limbo since they are not eligible to register for national health insurance and are unable to work.

“These (immigrants seeking asylum) are usually left behind in emergencies like this,” she said.

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