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LONDON — The basic objectives of a judicial sentence of imprisonment are deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment. To deter criminals, it is first necessary to arrest them and ensure that those who are guilty are convicted. The criminal must then recognize that imprisonment, which means in the first instance loss of liberty, is sufficiently unpleasant to make him or her want to avoid such a sentence in the future.

The second objective must be rehabilitation to help the criminal behave acceptably in society upon his release from prison. This means providing educational facilities in prisons and opportunities for productive labor. There should also be psychological treatment for criminals and, where appropriate, religious instruction.

Punishment is demanded by victims and by society, but it must be commensurate and generally regarded as acceptable in the circumstances. In particular, it must not be cruel. Thus corporal punishment must be outlawed. Denial of alcohol, effective bans on smoking and drugs and limiting leisure are essential elements in any prison regime.

The treatment of young offenders is particularly difficult. Some observers allege that imprisonment simply teaches the young offender how to avoid detection when they commit another crime after their release. To imprison anyone in a fair and proper way is expensive, but this is a cost that society must bear.

In Britain, there is growing concern about the rise in the prison population. In proportion to the population, more criminals are imprisoned in Britain than in most West European countries. Even so the proportion is considerably less than in the United States.

The state of British prisons varies. Unfortunately, brutal behavior by prison officers still occurs from time to time, although the worst cases involve prisoners acting violently against prison officers and against one another. Some of the older prisons especially have inadequate facilities. The trade union representing prison officers does not have a good reputation for efficiency.

Recently a number of “private” prisons have been established that have a better reputation. The chief inspector of prisons has described conditions in some prisons as deplorable and criticized management failures not only over security but also over provision for the rehabilitation of prisoners in advance of release.

In Britain, the Howard League for Penal reform, which includes among its members at least one former home secretary (the British Home Office is the government department responsible for the prison service), has campaigned tirelessly for improvements and reform. The media and lawyers also take every opportunity to expose errors while the judiciary try to ensure that any abuses of human rights drawn to the attention of the courts are righted. Much, however, remains to be done to ensure that the prison service in Britain deals fairly and humanely with the needs of prisoners.

Japan prides itself on a low level of crime and very high conviction rates. One reason for the high conviction rate is that most criminals “confess.” Although the reputation of the Japanese police today is quite different from what it was before World War II, suspicions remain about how “voluntary” all confessions in Japan really are.

The Japanese prison regime, according to a report in the London Times on Nov. 29 “is cruel, abusive and occasionally lethal.” On reading this report, I was at first inclined to dismiss it as an anti-Japanese media story, but I had also seen reports in Japanese-language newspapers about incidents in Nagoya that had led to the transfer of the governor of Nagoya Prison and two of his senior assistants. I accordingly read the Times report carefully and concluded that the allegations in it could not be dismissed as biased reporting.

The paper reported: “In the latest case to highlight Japan’s brutal prison regime, five police officers have been charged with assaulting prisoners, causing the death of one and serious injury to another.”

In capital letters in the center of the article there were these words: “The handcuff belt forces prisoners to eat like dogs, with hands pinned to their sides.” The use of the handcuff belt had, the report said, been routine in Nagoya Prison and had been used 148 times this year.

Prison rules were reported to cover “the way they (prisoners) walk, eat, go to the lavatory, and the direction in which their heads must point while sleeping. They are often forbidden to speak, or even to make eye contact with fellow inmates or guards without permission.”

Amnesty International was recorded as having said: “Japan should ensure the rights of all prisoners and detainees — as guaranteed in international human rights standards to which Japan is a state party — are protected.”

These reports are damaging to Japan’s reputation and inevitably remind foreigners of the history of Japanese treatment of prisoners of war and indigenous people in areas occupied by Japanese forces during World War II. The continuance of the death penalty in Japan (as well as in the U.S.) is regarded in Europe as inhumane and dangerous, especially as some of those condemned may later be shown to have been innocent.

If the account given by the London Times of Japanese prison conditions is considered by the Japanese authorities to be exaggerated or the facts to have been misreported, they would be wise to arrange for independent inspectors to investigate and report on conditions in Japanese prisons. Their report should then be published without any official tampering with what they say.

When was the last independent inspection made? Is there an equivalent in Japan of Britain’s Howard League? If there is no such organization is it not time that one was formed?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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