Some of Japan’s toughest criminals sat silently at their assigned lunchroom seats, their backs straight and eyes closed. No one took a bite until a guard gave the order.
Japan’s prisons treat their charges with strict rules and unbending discipline - methods critics charge are dehumanizing and cruel.
Prisoners cannot talk or look aside while working, eating or marching; exercise is forbidden in cells; tobacco is banned; TV times and programs are decided by guards; inmates’ faces must be visible while they sleep. Conversation is restricted to a few short breaks and 3-1/2 hours after dinner; prisoners are subject to several strip searches a day.
“The stricter the rules are, the safer life in the prison is,” said Koichi Watanabe, deputy warden at Fuchu Prison in west Tokyo, the largest and oldest prison in Japan.
Compared to American prisons, where drugs, violence and rape are taken for granted, Japanese prisons seem to be islands of tranquility. Uncrowded, clean, orderly and for the most part safe, it’s hard to believe they’re full of criminals.
But the system that has achieved these results has increasingly come under attack from human rights proponents and inmates as secretive places where Draconian regimentation and dehumanizing punishments grind prisoners into submission.
“Order is achieved at a very high cost: the cost of violating fundamental human rights and failing to observe international standards,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a 1995 report.
Critics say the prisons suffocate inmates in an avalanche of pointless rules. Trivial infractions, they allege, are met with brutal punishment, including beatings and spells in “protective cells,” where prisoners immobilized in restraints have to lap up their meals like dogs and defecate through slits ripped in their pants.
While prison officials deny abuse, they make no apologies for the strict discipline.
“Even though there has been criticism that Japanese prisons have too many rules, without them it would be chaos,” Watanabe said.
But corrections officials are secretive when it comes to precisely how they keep their charges in line. Prison rules are confidential, and a rare tour of Fuchu Prison granted to The Associated Press omitted solitary confinement and protective cells, which officials say are used only to calm “berserk” inmates and not for punishment.
Though the visit was limited, it left no question that Japanese prisons are tightly run places.
The times that prisoners wake up, eat, talk and sleep are rigidly set. Almost all inmates work 40-hour weeks at one of 29 factories, making shoes, ceramics, wooden toys, books and other items.
Signs with detailed lists of instructions are everywhere. In the health clinic waiting room, inmates are ordered to sit in silence - and forbidden to cross their arms or legs. A sign in the communal bath features a diagram showing inmates precisely how short their sideburns should be.
Prisoners are also highly isolated - from each other and the outside world. Telephones are off limits; letters to and from prisoners are read and censored - or simply confiscated; visits are videotaped or monitored by guards.
Officials say detailed guidelines are needed to keep order and preserve safety.
After all, they say, the inmates aren’t saints. Fuchu’s 2,250 inmates are in the tougher of two major classifications of male prisoners in Japan, and many belong to gangs.
As authorities are eager to point out, order is not a problem. Though Fuchu had its share of fights in 1996 - 130 “incidents” - there were no rapes or murders, officials said. In the whole prison system, only one inmate was murdered from 1992 to 1995, the Justice Ministry said.
Japanese prisons also enjoy a luxury that would make American corrections authorities weep - plenty of room. With a low crime rate and prison usually reserved for only the worst cases, Japan has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the industrialized world.
But the number of complaints against the prisons has risen dramatically over the past 20 years, as critics charge that the regimentation robs inmates of their humanity.
Still, the harsh rules don’t seem to stop many inmates from coming back. A higher percentage of prisoners have been there before than in Britain or the U.S. prison system.
Some former prisoners, in fact, say the regimentation was an impediment to rehabilitation, not an aid.
And prison officials acknowledge that some inmates can no longer function on the outside.
Whether or not Fuchu’s prisoners are reformed, the rules follow them relentlessly out the door. Fuchu bids its charges farewell with a sign on the outside of the perimeter wall.
“No cheering ‘banzai!”’ the sign says. “Leave the grounds immediately.”
xxxx PRISON RULES PERMIT LITTLE LATITUDE Prison rules either observed by AP reporters or confirmed by prison officials: Schedule. Times for waking up, working, bathing, exercising, eating, resting, watching TV, talking and sleeping are precise and must be followed to the letter. Talking. Inmates are strictly forbidden to talk to one another except during three 15-minute work breaks and 3-1/2 hours after dinner in their cells. Loud talk and shouting is banned. Inmates are allowed to speak only to inmates who work in the same factory. Work. Inmates are forbidden to look at one another or away from their work stations while in prison factories. Movements. Where inmates look, how they walk and where they put their hands are dictated by authorities, and prisoners are constantly reminded of the rules. Signs posted on stairs at Fuchu order inmates to walk on the white line and not to talk or look around. Prisoners march in set patterns - inmates marching to the bath have to goose-step, while those seen entering a factory slapped their thighs in unison as they marched. Appearance. Inmates’ heads are close-cropped and sideburns are cut according to precise regulations. At Fuchu, prisoners wear gray uniforms and caps to work and striped ones for sleeping. Colored tags show inmates’ good-behavior ranking and length of time without an accident at work. Sleeping. While officials deny critics’ allegations that prisoners are forbidden to sleep on their stomachs, they acknowledge that inmates’ faces must be visible when they sleep. Prisoners are prohibited from covering their heads with blankets. Contact with the outside. Visits are strictly monitored, either directly by a guard or by videotape. Only close relatives are permitted to visit. Prisoners have no access to telephones. Letters in and out of the prison are censored or confiscated, and inmates can usually only correspond with people on their visiting list. - Associated Press
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