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Obedience to Authority
Japanese Prison System Is Fundamentally Different From U.S.

Dec. 9, 1999

By Kevin Heldman

Center for Prisoners' Rights
A typical Japanese prisoner restraining belt
TOKYO ( -- After completing six years in the Japanese prison system, Johnny Crittenden sits in the interview cell of an immigration detention center awaiting deportation to the United States. A guard at his side takes notes on everything said as Crittenden explains why he's suing the Japanese government for abuse.

In 1994, Crittenden, a former U.S. Navy enlisted man once stationed in Japan, was convicted of raping a Japanese woman and attempting to rape another. He was sent to Fuchu prison, the largest maximum-security lockup in Japan and the one that houses all foreigners who don't speak Japanese.

During his sentence, Crittenden spent 4 1/2 years in solitary confinement for refusing to cut his hair, which he kept long because of his Rastafarian religion. He said for eight hours each weekday, he was forced to sit in his cell folding paper bags, prohibited from standing or moving his eyes. After his release, his lawyers subpoenaed his records and discovered that he'd been held in a psychiatric ward, though he claims to have never seen a doctor.

In his lawsuit, Crittenden, 39, charges Fuchu prison officials with inflicting severe psychological violence -- treatment that has long been an integral part of the Japanese penal system.

'Like Alcatraz'

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Prison expert, former inmate face off

It is this very treatment that in recent years is being called into question. Prison reform advocates are calling it abuse; the public, often in the dark about prison practices, is assuming it's deserved punishment; and corrections administrators are calling it the lies and exaggerations of disgruntled inmates.

"This is the American prison of three decades ago," said Elmer Johnson, a criminology professor who has written and researched extensively on the Japanese prison system. "In many ways it's more humane than American prisons, but it's grounded in conditions like Alcatraz -- the belief that hard work and stern rules build character."

It's also designed to break down a prisoner's resistance, force him to acknowledge guilt and remorse, and mold him back into an obedient and peaceful member of society. For those judged to be beyond rehabilitation, or those who consistently resist authority, the treatment may seem to be simple abuse.

The Japanese government's official position on this, according to a spokesman, is simple: "We see it as we don't have any problems."

Far less prison violence in Japan

Kevin Mara, former inmate of Fuchu prison, re-enacts how a prisoner has to sit during chobatsu.
Prisoners must follow a litany of detailed rules. For example, inmates can't walk around in their cells or discuss personal matters with fellow prisoners. Other regulations instruct them on how to bathe and warn against clapping too loudly at prison events. They must be polite during visits with relatives or they risk losing future visitation privileges. When people enter from the outside, inmates must face the wall and avoid making eye contact. They must address guards as sensei, or teacher.

These conditions are considered remarkably more severe than those in American prisons. One condition, though, is much less severe in prisons in Japan than the United States: violence. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 1995 (the latest figures available) there were almost 26,000 reported inmate-on-inmate assaults in American prisons.

The Japanese Ministry of Justice Correction Bureau reported five such assaults in its 1997 statistics. The BJS reported 14,165 assaults on staff by inmates. In Japan the number was zero. Neither report addressed the number of staff assaults on inmates.

But there's not much difference between recidivism rates. According to Japan's Correction Bureau, the recidivism rate for Japanese inmates from 1992 through 1997 was 46.8 percent, only slightly higher than the almost 40 percent estimated for the United States, said Allen Beck, BJS corrections statistics chief.

Japan's present Prison Law, which dictates how prisons operate and how inmates are treated, dates back 90 years and has never been revised. In 1993, though, the Correction Bureau started trying to introduce a new penal institutional bill that would replace the old law. That bill, according to bureau literature, focuses primarily on the "enlargement of human rights and freedoms of inmates," as well as reforms in inmate visitation and correspondence policies, living conditions and health services.

That bill has not yet passed.

Discipline protects inmates

Japanese officials maintain that strictness makes it safer -- that the excessive discipline actually protects inmates. Japan cites the higher U.S. rate of prison violence to stress their facilities' effectiveness.

"They're very clean, well-managed and there's no question of who runs the prisons," Johnson said. He compared the Japanese prison system, with its discipline and psychological violence, to Marine Corps training.

Johnson, who overall believes Japanese prisons are sound, nevertheless said all the emphasis on self-correction and behavioral modification "doesn't work. What they call rehabilitation means putting in 35 hours a week of work and keeping your mouth shut."

Prisoners tell tales of horror

A Japanese prisoner working

Crittenden described one incident in Fuchu prison where guards repeatedly hit him in the back of his head in an apparent dispute over his refusal to cut his facial hair.

Crittenden turned his head away, he said, and in response a number of guards rushed in, threw him to the floor, jumped on his back and wrapped a restraining belt so tightly around his waist that he had difficulty breathing.

The convicted rapist said he was left in a cell like this for 24 hours screaming in Japanese Itai, itai -- "It hurts, it hurts" -- while guards ignored him. Because his hands were bound, guards would come in and try to shovel food in his mouth, not giving him time to chew.

"These things are torture devices," Crittenden said of the restraining belts. "Once they put you in the room, they don't care what happens to you."

Crittenden said as further punishment for shrugging his shoulders, guards emptied his cell of everything and he was made to sit chobatsu.

Sitting on the box

Chobatsu literally means punishment, but the word commonly refers to the practice of putting prisoners in isolation and forcing them to sit on a small plywood box with a 5-inch ledge in the rear that makes it painful to lean back.

During chobatsu, a prisoner's cell is completely emptied and the windows are covered. He is made to sit rigidly on the box, knees together, elbows tucked in, hands flat on his thighs, feet on the floor, staring at the wall for 12 hours a day. An inmate can get off the box for meals but must get back on immediately. He can take a shower after 10 days. Guards shout if they see even one finger out of alignment.

Crittenden said he had to sit like this for 20 days.

The Japanese contend that the strict discipline and isolation are meant to elicit remorse and prompt prisoners to reflect and change their ways.

Several former prisoners said chobatsu was administered for just about any infraction, from opening their eyes to talking in the factory bathroom.

"This will explain how crazy it is," said Christopher Lavinger, an American who spent 16 months in Japanese lockups. "You're not allowed to stand up, walk around or look at the door or get a drink of water from the sink because you might be doing something illegal and that is a violation and you're subject to chobatsu."

CONTINUED to Page 2 of 2:
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