The 1908 Prison Law was revised last year to improve protection of prisoners’ human rights and enhance their social rehabilitation, ushering in a new era of reforms in the nation’s prison system. A new type of prison is now under construction in Mine, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The Mine Social Rehabilitation Service Center, to open in April 2007, will be Japan’s first prison built under Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) — a scheme to build social infrastructure utilizing the private sector’s funds and expertise. Such an idea was first introduced by the British government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1992. Most of the work in the Mine center, such as security and vocational training of inmates, will be done by private-sector workers. Other duties, however, will remain strictly in the hands of government employees.

The establishment of such a center is based on the philosophy of delegating as much government work as possible to the private sector, thereby decreasing the government’s financial burden. In running the center, a line needs to be drawn between the work that should be done by government employees and that which can be carried out by private-sector workers. Prisons primarily are facilities that must be run under government authority. In areas that involve the exercise of government authority, careful consideration must precede any decision to delegate work to the private sector.

More than 50 local governments have expressed their hope to host a prison under the PFI scheme as a means of revitalizing their economies. In December 2005, the central government accepted a plan submitted by the Yamaguchi prefectural government and the Mine city government to build such a prison in Mine. A second such prison is planned in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture. But the opening of the Hamada facility has been postponed from April 2008 to October that year because companies in two consortiums that took part in the bidding were indicted in connection with a bid-rigging scandal involving Defense Facilities Agency officials.

The Mine center will be constructed in a government-designated, deregulated “structural reform special zone” — a 280,000 sq. meter site where housing for coal miners once stood. The city’s population has dwindled from more than 40,000 around 1960 to 18,000 today. The city government expects the operation of the center to pump 740 million yen annually into the local economy via government subsidies and spending by the center’s inmates, employees and their families.

A seven-company consortium led by a major security service company will take part in the operation of the Mine center. Non-imposing fences equipped with infrared ray sensors will be erected in place of high walls. Inmates will wear clothes with electronic tags that can pinpoint their location. The hospital in the center will have a gynecology department. It will be run by a public hospital in the city and will be open to the citizens of Mine, which now has no gynecological service. The center will accommodate 500 male and 500 female first-time offenders of non-heinous crimes, whose prison terms are two to three years. Most inmates will get private rooms, with males and females housed in separate wards.

These days prisons should provide education and training according to inmates’ criminal records, personalities and needs. Since the Mine facility is located in a “structural reform special zone,” it will be able to do things ordinary prisons cannot — like inviting specialists from the private sector to provide vocational training to inmates in areas such as computers and nursing care. It may even be able to take the bold step of allowing well-behaved inmates to engage in agricultural, forestry and fisheries work outside the facility.

Workers from the Justice Ministry and private sector will not mingle at the center. Private-sector workers in general will also be separated from inmates. Justice Ministry workers will exercise public authority in such fields as management of work assigned to inmates and punishment of inmates who violate rules. But such work as provision of meals, cleaning and laundry can be done by local private companies.

There are still gray areas — possibly including the supervision of inmates, inspection of their mail and vocational training. A clear and careful division of labor is vital from the perspective of preventing the abuse of inmates’ human rights by private-sector workers, including possible economic exploitation. While thorough discussions must be conducted on this issue, there is no doubt government and private-sector workers at the Mine facility can work together to build a new model for prisons.

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