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Obedience to Authority (continued)

Restraining belts for violent prisoners

Center for Prisoners' Rights
Photo submitted by prison officials in a court case to prove restraint belts are not so tight that prisoners can't use their hands to eat.

In 1998, there were 21,648 incidents of prisoners put in chobatsu, according to Tsuyoshi Mabuchi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice. Regarding the number of restraining belts used, Mabuchi said the agency "won't provide this number to the public."

Mabuchi said restraining belts are used only in cases where prisoners were violent or posed a risk of suicide or escape. "They must have some kind of misunderstanding," Mabuchi said when asked about the complaints of Crittenden and Kevin Mara, a former Fuchu prisoner.

But Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer with the Center for Prisoners' Rights and Mara's attorney, maintains that in about three-quarters of all cases, a restraint belt is used to "humble, degrade or punish" prisoners.

'Always having to close our eyes'

Ian Miller, a Canadian who spent close to 2 1/2 years in Fuchu on drug possession charges, sent a first-person account of his experience:

"Before bathing, we would wait in a room next door until it was our turn. We had to sit on benches, with our eyes closed, no talking, for anywhere from five to 20 minutes. We were always having to close our eyes: before and after lunch and tea breaks; before roll call in our rooms; while waiting to see the prison doctor; and so on. I'm still not too clear on the reasoning behind this, but I suppose it was just another way for the guards to assert their dominance over us."

Mara, 35, said the dominance was more overt. He spent more than five years locked up in Fuchu. In 1992, while living in the Philippines, he was caught in Narita Airport trying to smuggle 12 kilos of marijuana into Japan. When Mara went to Fuchu he was kept in isolation for nearly two years -- as punishment, he says, for writing a letter to the Japanese Bar Association and attempting to initiate a lawsuit against the prison system.

Testimony has just wrapped up, and Mara is awaiting a court decision, Kaido said.

Mara was released in 1998 and now lives in the basement of his mother's house in Connecticut. He spins tales of drug smuggling, arms dealing and corruption during his years traveling around Asia.

'Oh my God, I'm gonna be raped'

Early on in his sentence, Mara said he was accused of throwing a book to the floor, and put in a restraining belt.

This is how he describes the experience: "All of a sudden the door flings open and all these guards reach in and they grab me and the next thing I know they're dragging me down the hall, doubled over and cuffed with my head down by my knees. Then they walked me down like this to a protection cell."

The protection cell is about 7 feet by 7 feet with thick walls, a camera on the ceiling and a water bottle with a straw so those in restraints can drink. Mara said it felt like being buried alive.

"The next thing I know, they throw me in this room and there's like 10 or 15 guards there ripping my pants off and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm gonna be raped now. ... They've got me there, face down, all these guards are sitting on me and they're pulling my pants off."

He was re-dressed in special pants, which had slits in the crotch so he'd be able to use the toilet without his hands.

"Then they put this leather belt on me," Mara said. "I've never seen anything like this before. When [the guard] put it on, this guy stood on my back and he yanked that sucker, he pulled that [belt]. It cut in there; I had scars around me for weeks. They put it on so tight that every time you took a breath your stomach hurt. ... I was a 36 waist and they put that sucker on there about 32."

After 20 hours guards took the belt off, and he was kept in the same protection cell for two days, he said.

"That just tore me up; I broke down pretty much completely -- from the pain, from being totally helpless," he said. "I'd only been in prison a couple months, I had many years to go. That was torture, physical torture. I broke down, cried. I think I cried for 10 hours straight."

Inmates separated by nationality

All American prisoners are housed individually, while Japanese inmates live in dormitory cells. The American Embassy says this is done for security purposes. Conversation for Americans is limited to about a total of 20 minutes a day.

All prisoners are required under threat of chobatsu to work in one of Fuchu's 29 factories. They toil in absolute silence without looking up. Inmates are strip-searched upon entering and exiting the factory each day.

The U.S. Embassy official says prisoners are kept hungry all the time. "This is deliberately calculated. They're given the minimum number of calories to keep them alive," he said. The quantity of food a prisoner receives varies depending on the nature of his work. On days off, inmates receive less food.

Kaido, who also represents Crittenden, and other lawyers say that a major problem in the system is that there is no independent watchdog agency monitoring Japanese prisons.

No Japanese civil rights act

This is a prison cell for several inmates at Tokyo's Fuchu prison.
B.J. George Jr., professor emeritus at New York Law School and an expert on Japanese criminal law, said there is also no effective legal way for Japanese prisoners to challenge their conditions or treatment. There is no Japanese equivalent of the Federal Civil Rights Act, under which most U.S. prisoner litigation is filed, George said. While Japanese inmates do not clog the courts by filing frivolous lawsuits -- the way U.S. prisoners can -- there exists the possibility for real abuses to go unchecked.

Makoto Ibusuki, an associate professor of law at Kagoshima University, said disciplinary measures are decided at the prison's discretion and administered without oversight. "There are no legal proceedings to review punishments before and at the time of discipline," Ibusuki said.

The allegations of abuse are not limited to Americans. In fact, being an American behind bars in Japan may actually afford a prisoner some protection. Guards may be less likely to blatantly abuse U.S. citizens than they would other foreigners whose governments have less political clout.

When Mara was held in pre-trial detention before going to Fuchu, he said officials "were cautious a little bit with me because I was an American, but some of the other guys like the Malaysians ... they were beating the [expletive] out of them every day."

Inmate: prisoners would just disappear

The Japanese aren't necessarily any better off when it comes to treatment in their own country.

Yuji Yokota, who was incarcerated three separate times in Japanese penitentiaries, including Fuchu, now lives in a homeless shelter in a drab commercial market area hours outside of Tokyo. Toothless, limping, looking older than his 44 years, Yokota is anything but a disgruntled prisoner bashing his jailers. Yokota said he went to prison because he deserved it and said about his years spent in Fuchu, "As a human being, I think I grew a lot, learned a lot. Before I was in prison I didn't know anything in life, how to be polite to seniors, how to communicate with others."

However, Yokota said prisoners in his dorm would just disappear, and though he never witnessed any beatings or use of restraints personally, he said over and over again that prisoners told of inmates being held in restraints all day, sometimes for up to a week.

Miller, the Canadian, also said he saw inmates taken away and days later would see them in the shower with welts on their bodies.

Watering plants could be trouble

Yokota said prisoners would be punished for not raising their hand to get permission to talk, for talking to other inmates, giving food to a bird or changing water for a flower.

The system exacts its toll in different ways.

Mara tells the story of an Iranian prisoner he met in Fuchu when he first arrived, someone who was full of energy, joked around a lot and wanted to help everybody. The man got in trouble repeatedly, usually over minor incidents. Mara describes seeing him toward the end of his own sentence: "He was crushed. He did chobatsu so much, he was like an empty shell. They put the belts on him like a half-dozen times. They destroyed the man."

Prison officials mum on accusations

Crittenden's story, as well as those of other prisoners, is difficult to confirm. In fact, it's notoriously difficult for a reporter to get any substantive information on the prison system because inmates are allowed only visits from family members or in some cases lawyers. Prisoners can neither make nor receive phone calls and may only write letters to family or occasionally lawyers, all of which are censored.

Fuchu's prison regulations instruct prisoners to "not write anything which would trouble others ... you must not write anything concerning the institution."

Repeated attempts to interview Fuchu prison officials by were unsuccessful.

Tatsuhiro Yasutake, investigation officer for Fuchu prison, refused to answer any questions about the treatment of specific prisoners had interviewed.

"The Japanese prison system is kept highly secret," Ibusuki said. "Generally, academics cannot research by using an experimental method -- interviewing, using questionnaires and collecting data. The only way is to look at the official statistics or the official research papers. So, unfortunately, we do not have much independent data and analysis of our prison system."

Repeated reports of abuse

However, was able to gain access to the cellblocks and work factories of one Japanese prison. And in interviews with former inmates, prison wardens, lawyers and embassy officials, and based on a review of court documents and reports by human rights organizations, complaints similar to Crittenden's surfaced time and again.

In recent years, reports by the International Bar Association, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Watch have criticized conditions in Japanese prisons. Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department and the Center for Prisoners' Rights Japan, a nonprofit organization advocating prison reform, have received reports of numerous cases of prisoners being beaten severely and arbitrarily, dying in custody, being refused medical care, suffering from frostbite, malnutrition and extreme use of isolation for minor infractions, and being subjected to abusive and injurious use of restraints.

'Where they dump the garbage'

Professor George of New York Law School said a significant number of lawbreakers in Japan are diverted from the prison system either through parole or by the police not referring their cases to the prosecutor's office. The people who do go to prison are, for the most part, multiple offenders, people who show no repentance and who have failed repeated efforts by the judicial system and the community to rehabilitate them.

Japan incarcerates approximately 30 people per 100,000 of their population. The U.S. number, according to 1995 figures from the BJS, is 672 per 100,000.

The leniency policy swings to the other extreme for those sentenced to prison. Johnson quotes an article addressing law and culture in Japan: "Japanese not only believe that human character is mutable but view an excessively bad person as 'non-human.'

Toshi Takaesu, a former prosecutor in Japan, echoed this theme by bluntly stating, "[Prison] is a place where they dump the garbage."

Foreigners face constant harassment

A prison guard speaks on the phone at a "watch tower" in a furniture factory at Tokyo's Fuchu prison.

About 30 American civilians are serving time in Japanese prisons, including one juvenile. Another 15 or so are in pretrial detention and 18 more U.S. military personnel are locked up in a separate facility. Their sentences range from one year to life behind bars.

A U.S. embassy official in Japan familiar with prison conditions told, "[The order in Japanese prisons] is maintained at a high cost. The cost is [the prisoner's] liberty -- personal and psychological. It's a highly regimented system with severe discipline, including prolonged isolation."

The same U.S. Embassy official said that foreign prisoners in particular are subjected to constant harassment and "ruthless enforcement of petty rules on a daily basis."

Japan has no prisoner transfer treaty with the United States, and it is not a member of the Council of Europe's Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, a 40-member body, which includes the United States.

'Stark living conditions'

In a letter to addressing the U.S. government's response to abusive treatment of Americans in Japanese prisons, an official with the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs wrote, "The United States has for many years been urging Japan to agree to become a party to the Council of Europe multilateral treaty. ... In August 1999, we held expert-level talks with the Japanese in Washington on the transfer of prisoners. We hope that the Japanese will introduce legislation to the diet, the Japanese parliament to accede to the Council of Europe Convention on transferring prisoners.

"U.S. citizen prisoners in Japan sometimes complain about the stark living conditions and psychological isolation."

In regard to the treaty, a spokesman for the Japanese government would only say, "The Japanese government is researching the issue and considering different options, including joining the Council."

Designs artillery in his head

And as for Mara, during the course of his sentence, he estimates he spent three months doing chobatsu. And while at times he recounts his sentence in Fuchu prison as a nightmarish experience, he is also cocky, believing he beat authorities at their own game.

Related Stories:

A Glimpse Inside Yokosuka Prison

Inmate Details Forced Prison Labor, Abuse

Related Documents:

Documents Detailing the Japanese Prison System

"Actually, I used to look forward to days doing it," he said. "I developed my mind to a point where I ... could actually sit there all day for 12 hours and stare at the wall and have a hell of a lot of fun. I could build something from scratch and see the whole thing laid out in three dimensions, every little nut and bolt, and have it memorized in my head. I'd build ships in my brain. I'd go for a whole week building a ship."

He now describes himself as "a little crazy" and spends his time designing artillery in his head.

When asked whether he would ever smuggle drugs again, Mara is still defiant. He says if he did attempt that crime again, he'd be better at it. He says he was in prison with the world's best smugglers, and he'd now be able to do it on a much larger scale.

Kevin Heldman is an staff writer (

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