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Inmate Details Forced Prison Labor, Abuse
Accusations Emerge After 16-Month Stint

Dec. 9, 1999

By Kevin Heldman

Center for Prisoners' Rights
A man wears typical Japanese restraints
TOKYO ( -- In November 1991, Christopher Lavinger, a 25-year-old disk jockey, was completing a two-week tour in Japan when he was caught with 3.5 grams of cocaine, 18 hits of Ecstasy and 1.5 grams of marijuana.

Lavinger, who said the drugs were for his personal use, was convicted of possession and spent 16 months in Japanese lockups, including Fuchu prison, before his release in November 1993. Although forbidden by prison regulations to keep a record of daily life there, he came out with a litany of charges running the gamut from the banal to the sensational. Among them are:

  • On two separate occasions, he says he was struck with an electrified baton when he broke his posture on the chobatsu box, a punishment in which prisoners are put in isolation and forced to sit in an exact rigid position for 12 hours a day.
  • He says he witnessed a British prisoner being placed on Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic drug, for crying after finding out his mother died.
  • Lavinger, who is Jewish, says a guard repeatedly carved swastikas into his shampoo bottles. He alledged that the same guard sexually fondled him over an eight-month period.

In 1994, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) held congressional hearings on Japan's allowing of prison labor to be used by private companies that export to the United States. The hearings were instigated by Lavinger and his lawyer, Michael Griffith (who also represented Billy Hayes Jr., upon whom the book and movie Midnight Express was based).

That same year, The New York Times reported that Sega Electronics dropped one of its subcontractors after realizing it was using prison labor to make some parts for U.S. export, allegedly without Sega's knowledge.

"You're familiar with the issue of forced labor for private companies [in Japan]?" Lavinger asked. "On my mother's grave, I worked for those companies," a charged echoed by a number of other prisoners.

During the hearings and in interviews with, Lavinger also spoke about the regimen and conditions in Japanese prisons.

Inmate recalls birthday movie

Lavinger said the inmates were ranked according to the colors white, green and red, and "then some imaginary class above where you actually have some freedom, which I don't believe exists."

Inside and outside views of a protection cell

Lavinger's days were spent mostly working in silence. He said he was allowed three books at one time in his cell. In his cell there was a television that sat on the floor which inmates weren't allowed to touch. As a white-class inmate, he was able to see a movie once a month. Green class was allowed to watch movies twice a month. At night the prison would turn on Armed Forces Radio for news and top 40 songs.

Once a year, on a common day, people whose birthdays fell in the same month were allowed two hours off to watch movies. Lavinger remembers watching Meatballs in Japanese, getting a small package of six cookies and having the longest conversation he ever had during his time locked up. He said it was uncomfortable to even talk after being silent for so long.

Later in his sentence he believes he was denied parole because he told an anti-Japanese joke -- "Something to do with Pearl Harbor," he says -- and a fellow inmate turned him in.

'Turn and face the wall'

A prison guard walks the hallway to patrol the cells at the Fuchu prison in Tokyo.
Lavinger said that inmate-on-inmate violence was almost nonexistent in Fuchu but there was violence by guards.

He offered one example: "We were outside marching, and we were halted and then you saw all these guards running, must've been 15, 20 guards, all running over to this one area right near us. And you saw one prisoner getting the [expletive] kicked out of him. That's when they ordered us me wo tojiro [close your eyes], and then turn and face the wall. This guy was having the [expletive] kicked out of him."

Lavinger said he had no doubt in his mind that if an inmate spoke back to a guard, he would have been beaten with impunity. "You're not allowed to ever look at anyone, you're not allowed to look a guard in eye. If you do, forget about it -- you're history."

Sometimes, Lavinger said, the violence became perverse. "I was being served dinner and I was talking for two seconds to one of the gaijin han [an inmate in the foreign prisoners section], and the guard heard me say, 'Aw, [expletive] that.' He walks over, looks over at me, breaks his keys out, opens up the door and screams, 'You said [expletive], you said [expletive]. Now you're going to have to give him a [expletive referring to oral sex].'"

"I said, 'I'm sorry, I am so very sorry, I'm sorry.' I'm bowing on my knees, pleading with him not to do this," Lavinger said. The act never took place, he said.

Inmate warned about abuse claims

Lavinger cites another example of violence. One day, after the required body check for inmates going in and out of the prison factory, the prisoners were dressing when Lavinger saw a hanger swing up and hook a Norwegian prisoner. He said it ripped the Norwegian's nose wide open, and he was bleeding profusely.

The guard still ordered the Norwegian to get in line for the count. After a while he collapsed and went into convulsions. The guards took him away and stitched him up. The Norwegian later told Lavinger that authorities forced him to sign some kind of document saying he was completely at fault.

Lavinger said prison officials read a letter he wrote to the U.S. Embassy in Japan complaining about treatment in Fuchu, including the continued fondling by the guard.

"They called me in [for questioning] and said, 'You can send the letter but you'll get no parole if you do,'" he said. "Then they gave me a form in Japanese -- I'm not even sure what it said -- but they told me it said that I destroyed this letter of my own free will and then they made me rip it up."

Lavinger said that the guard who had been molesting him and drawing swastikas on his possessions was forced to go up to him and apologize. He said the guard continued working at the prison after the apology.

Prison officials respond

After two written requests to Japan's Ministry of Justice for comment on Lavinger's specific charges, Satoshi Tomiyama, speaking for the Correction Bureau's Public Safety section in charge of inmate treatment, responded in a telephone interview. Tomiyama told that Fuchu officials flat out denied most of Lavinger's accusations. He also said Fuchu officials were not aware of some of the incidents Lavinger mentioned, or didn't have the information available.

Tomiyama said Fuchu prison guards do not use electrified batons, and that they have no way to enforce that a prisoner sits correctly on the chobatsu box. After repeatedly being asked about potential chobatsu abuse, Tomiyama admitted a defiant prisoner would remain in his cell with the box until he sat correctly, even if it meant six or seven years.

He said Fuchu officials denied that the guard ever sexually touched Lavinger.

Guard admits drawing swastika

As for the swastikas, Tomiyama said Fuchu officials admitted one such incident. Tomiyama said the guard alleged he drew a swastika to show Lavinger how a swastika resembles a Japanese symbol.

Tomiyama said Lavinger wrote 23 letters to the U.S. Embassy while imprisoned.

Related Stories:

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A Glimpse Inside Yokosuka Prison

Related Documents:

Documents Detailing the Japanese Prison System

In general, Tomiyama said he had no record of the number of prisoners on psychiatric drugs in the system or of what drugs they were given. He also said the prison system has no way to keep track of the number of times prisoners have been put in restraints.

Asked if he personally ever heard about or witnessed any kind of abuse in Japanese prisons, Tomiyama -- who once worked as a guard on and off for six years -- said he had heard of several incidents of guards mistreating prisoners, once of a guard striking a prisoner in the head.

When pressed for numbers, several days later Tomiyama responded by stating that in 1998 the total number of guards in all Japanese prisons disciplined for mistreating prisoners was approximately 50. However, he said that number is oddly combined with the number of guards involved in car accidents or traffic violations, and just a few of the 50 incidents represent guards mistreating prisoners.

Kevin Heldman is an staff writer (

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