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Japan Seeing Prisons Turn into Nursing Homes

Japan is facing a unique problem in its prison systems: it cannot persuade people to leave. The country has one of the highest proportions of elderly convicts in the world, and crimes committed by this cross-section of the population have quadrupled over the last twenty years. Over twenty percent of all prisoners in Japan are over the age of sixty years old, and the country is facing an issue about what to do with their elderly convicts.

Reasons for Elderly Prison Population

The costs of healthcare in Japan are increasing rapidly, and elderly prisoners face better living conditions in addition to better healthcare than they would if they were to be released. Japan is trying to reduce the number of homeless seniors by more than thirty percent by the time that they host the summer Olympic Games in 2020, but many prefer the government-subsidized life behind bars.

Elderly criminals are cycling in and out of prisons in Japan because they lack the family and financial support to care for them when released. Oftentimes, they are homeless and treated as outcasts in their community. It costs almost double to care for an elderly person in prison than what they would receive in welfare outside of prison, and many prefer the care that they receive as convicts. As a result, Japan’s prisons are turning into some type of hybrid nursing homes for its elderly prisoners.

Prisons as Nursing Homes

A Special Corrections Officer for Japan’s Justice Ministry has reported that “Many [elderly prisoners] need assistance for walking, bathing and eating. Some groan at night from pain, throw their excrement or wander inside cells because they’re suffering dementia.” Prison healthcare costs are increasing significantly because of the amount of elderly prisoners. In the last nine years, healthcare costs in Japanese prisons have doubled to six billion yen.

In addition, reentry programs for senior convicts into the outside world do not appear to be improving the system, despite the significant investment in the program. Problems with the program reached global attention in 2006 when a 74 year old recently released convict burned down the West Japan Railroad Co.’s Shimonoseki Station. He told police that he had been released eight days prior and wanted to return to prison because he was hungry and cold.

Prison guards often double as nurses, helping inmates change their adult diapers, wet underwear, help with daily living tasks like bathing, and help them walk. Many elderly prisoners are scared of being released from prisoner because they are fearful of the outside world and face the possibility of elder abuse.

Battling Other Issues

Every year, around 6,400 elderly prisoners are released from prison without a place to go, and one-third of these seniors will be back in prison within the next two years. Most of these repeat offenders are jobless at the time of their arrest and have no good opportunities for employment when their prison sentence is finished.

In addition, elderly prisoners are reluctant to resume life in the outside world because of the difficulty to access healthcare. With a major shortage of nursing home care in the country, convicts are battling with 520,000 other seniors on a waitlist for nursing home placement. While the government is taking steps to make healthcare more accessible and job opportunities easier, Japan has a long way to go before its elderly convicts stop treating its prisons like nursing homes.

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