Pensioners in Prison: Why are Japan’s geriatrics facing their twilight years behind bars?

As someone whose experience of prisons is limited to a yearlong obsession with “Prison Break”, my knowledge of real prison life is admittedly a little lacking. That said, I think you would forgive me for stereotyping prisoners as individuals who on the whole, have their own set of teeth and still have to pay full fees on public transport. However, this image of the youthful prisoner was shattered when I discovered that in Japan, a country where crime rates are falling, 12-16% of prisoners are over the age of 60 (compared to just 2.8% in the UK). This figure represents a dramatic and on-going rise in elderly crime and conviction, which cannot be explained simply by the fact that there has been a growth in the elderly population.

The majority of the crimes committed are not exactly of white-collar standards. In fact most convictions are for shoplifting or petty theft such as pickpocketing, with a recent BBC documentary featuring an elderly man who was serving a 2 year prison sentence for going out for drinks without the money to pay- not exactly the sort of crime that would make for a James Bond plot.

Indeed, as an outsider the apparent triviality of the offences doesn’t seem to correlate with the duration of the sentences. Many of us hold to the belief that prison should be a last resort and a place to keep individuals who are a danger to society; an elderly man stealing groceries from his local supermarket hardly fits well with this description. However, in Japan the sentences handed down are heavily influenced by the likelihood to re-offend, and it stands to reason that if an individual has committed a crime out of desperation to buy food or other household essentials, then it is likely that they will do so again.

When it comes to convictions, is age really just a number?

It is indisputable that a no-tolerance response to crime is necessary for any functioning society. However, there must surely be a better solution than locking up the elderly and forcing individuals who should be experiencing their finest twilight years into neon jumpsuits and strict regimens.

We must begin by addressing an important question- should the age of an individual bear an influence on their sentencing? The short answer is yes- with juvenile courts being the living testament to this decision- however when it comes to age differences amongst legal adults, the matter becomes a little more complicated. To answer this question we have to decide what we want our justice system to represent. Should our justice system act to rehabilitate individuals and prepare them for re-entering civil life, or is it a place purely for punishment to be delivered?

If it is the former that we are hoping for, then it follows that a lengthy prison sentence to someone at a younger age is likely to be a much better deterrent to crime than an elderly man or woman who has committed the crime out of desperation. At a younger age, convicts will be better placed to gain the most out of the rehabilitative aspects of their prison experience. They may, for example, gain valuable skills which they could use to re-build their civilian lives and are less likely to reoffend as they have more (or, at the very least, far longer) to live for.

These rehabilitative benefits of the justice system are less likely to be shared by older inmates, many of which will be retirees (although there are some rehabilitation systems designed with older inmates in mind). Yet, the punishment aspects of prison life may have a greater impact on this age group.

The isolation prison life brings is often magnified by the fact that older inmates are likely to have fewer, if any, visitors during their period of incarceration. This is due to relatives or friends having either died or living far away and thus less willing to visit an aging relative in prison. The resulting loneliness could be largely responsible for the high levels of depression amongst older inmates, especially when considering that unlike their younger counterparts, they are less likely to have somewhere they will look forward to returning to following their release. Furthermore, older prisoners are more likely to have chronic health conditions and so will require increasing amounts of more specialised care that existing prison medical systems may struggle to provide.

From a financial standpoint, an elderly prison population also puts a strain on prison spending and has forced adaption of current prison practices and architecture. Handrails running down the middle of the corridors are necessary to prevent falls and prison work becomes suddenly too strenuous for the older labour cohort, leading to a necessary modification of work carried out (lighter tasks are assigned) and a reduction in the required number of working hours. These changes, in addition to changes in the numbers and education of nurses and other medical staff, come at a cost. Additionally, in-house deaths requiring cremation are a much more frequent occurrence.

Is it all in the money?

It is likely that Japan’s stagnating economy and lowered welfare spending is partly to blame for this rise in elderly crime. With 43% of welfare going to elderly households (compared to 1/10 in the US) any fall in welfare spending will have significant consequences. In some cases, it appears that the turn to crime is not simply a means to supplement a dwindling pension, but stems from a desire to be placed in a centre where good medical care and 3 meals a day are assured.

Of course, money is not the only cause. There are cultural changes unique to Japan that have contributed to this acute change in the provision of elderly care. Whereas before the elderly could confidently rely on family members taking care of them in their old age, the increasing trend of children moving out of the family home (along with increasing numbers of women in the work place) has meant that the elderly are often left to care for themselves.

A grim (and grey) warning

Japan is often referred to as a greying nation, with over 30% of its population aged 65 years or older. However, with 1 in 5 predicted to be over the age of 60 in 2050, the rest of us are not far behind. At Onomichi prison, the effects of an aging prison population are clear to see- with a floor dedicated to older inmates, the implementation of ramps instead of steps and prison employees trained in elderly care being just a few of the many examples that make this prison stand out from any other.

I cannot help but think that in making these changes, the government is glossing over a problem that is only going to get worse. Perhaps rather than forcing the prison system to adapt to a change in age and so succumbing to the belief that crime rates must rise, they should view the crimes as a product of failings in adequate care provision for a growing elderly population. From here, efforts can be made to expand existing care homes and welfare systems so that the elderly are not forced into a criminal life and bundled behind bars when they call for help; and instead given the care and respect that should be afforded to any older person whilst they enjoy their twilight years.

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