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No country for old men: Japan’s elderly inmates prefer jail

Tokyo: Every day is the same. He wakes at 6:45 am, eats breakfast 20 minutes later and reports for work at eight o’clock sharp. But this isn’t your typical Japanese salaryman.

This man is in his 80s and he is in prison — a cage of structure and certainty that he is hesitant to ever leave.

“I don’t know what kind of life I should lead after I get out. I’ll be worried about my health and financial situation once I leave,” the inmate told AFP on condition of anonymity from Tokyo’s Fuchu Prison, where he is serving time for attempted theft.

His case is not unique: Japan is in the midst of a geriatric crime wave such that its prisons increasingly look like nursing homes.

The situation has become so dire the government approved a plan to deploy nursing care staff to about half of Japan’s 70 prisons from April, allocating a budget of 58 million yen (USD 495,000).

In 2015, almost 20 percent of those who were either arrested or interrogated by police were aged 65 or older — up from 5.8 percent in 2000, according to the National Police Agency.

Most are imprisoned for petty crime such as shoplifting and theft.

The rise in senior crime is attributed to increased economic hardship, an ageing population, and pure greed, according to a 2013 report by the National Police Agency.

“It’s a problem that the work of prison officers is becoming more like nursing care,” Justice Ministry official Shinsuke Nishioka said, contrasting that with the traditional task of ensuring the incarcerated don’t escape.

Officers at Fuchu, Japan’s biggest male-only correctional house, have to change diapers for some prisoners and help them bathe.

“Older prisoners sometimes are hard of hearing,” Nishioka said. “They don’t understand instructions and they have to go to the toilet often. It’s tough. We’ll need more officers.”

As part of the plan to tackle the issue, authorities have also given the greenlight to a plan to send physical fitness experts to more prisons to cater to the needs of older inmates.

Prison life in Japan is far from easy — talking is forbidden while at work, inmates must walk single file, and bathing is restricted.

Even during rare events put on for their entertainment, they are only allowed to sit ramrod straight with their hands on their laps. Applause is generally forbidden.

Life is monotonous, and naturally restricted, yet many prefer this predictable regimen where they have shelter, food, and medical care, to life on the outside.

“At least (in prison) they have a roof over their head and guaranteed meals,” says Tina Maschi, associate professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service.