Japan’s Penal System Overhaul Proposed by Advisory Group Following Cases of Inmate Mistreatment

In the wake of rampant inmate mistreatment in a Nagoya prison facility, an independent expert group presented a comprehensive plan of action to enhance the conditions within Japan’s prison system to the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday.

The abuse scandal involved twenty-two correctional officers who were implicated in over 400 incidents of inmate mistreatment, spanning from November 2021 to September 2022, at the Nagoya facility. The victims reportedly included several inmates suspected to have intellectual disabilities.

The proposed reforms – encompassing strategies for timely identification of abuse and prevention of recurring incidents – would extend to all correctional institutions across the country, pending official approval, as indicated by the ministry.

Among the crucial recommendations by the advisory panel was bolstering the support system for younger correctional officers, who constituted a majority of those involved in the Nagoya abuse incidents, highlighting their relative lack of experience.

The panel additionally recommended that officers working night shifts should not operate solo, identifying this as a potential contributing factor to instances of abuse.

A ministry official stated, “Some young prison officers are left to manage about 100 inmates singlehandedly during the late-night hours. I believe the incidents at Nagoya could have been prevented if adequate support was available.”

According to the proposed changes, teams comprising prison officers and staff specialising in social welfare and education would convene to devise individual treatment plans for each inmate, a considerable shift from the current approach where a single officer is assigned several inmates.

In a move to preempt potential issues, the recommendations also included regular inmate surveys, given the prevailing concerns that prisoners may not willingly report problems.

The panel further proposed broadening the use of wearable cameras by correctional officers. Several facilities, primarily women’s prisons, already employ these devices, with male officers required to wear them during interactions with female inmates.

However, to effectively counteract abuse, the panel proposed extending the use of wearable cameras to night-shift workers and treatment groups, allowing real-time assistance during their shifts. Although such cameras were in use at the Nagoya facility, they were not configured for live video streaming.

The panel also addressed the need for an officer identification system. While officers at youth detention centers wear name badges on duty, this practice is not prevalent in most penal institutions, including Nagoya Prison. The panel acknowledged the need for some form of identification to hold officers accountable, but suggested alternatives to name badges to prevent possible intimidation of staff by prisoners.

The panel’s recommendations also touched upon the improper use of derogatory language when interacting with inmates, highlighting a systemic lack of understanding about human rights. An alarming near 20% of prison staff confessed to neglecting inmate rights in a survey conducted following the Nagoya abuse case, as per the Justice Ministry.

The panel stressed the importance of fostering a free-expression environment for staff through team systems and mental health consultations. They emphasized that officers should primarily serve as guides assisting prisoners towards social reintegration, rather than just acting as authority figures or security personnel. The panel recommended an approach of establishing dialogue to reduce danger, as opposed to preemptively treating all inmates as threats.

The report also proposed a revision of the system determining the locations for serving sentences, advocating for specialized roles at facilities aimed at targeted rehabilitation. Presently, for male inmates, the location is based on factors like repeat-offense history.

Notably, the Nagoya facility, where the abuse incidents transpired, does not accommodate first-time offenders, while prisons in Shizuoka and Chiba do. The system classifies members of criminal organizations as repeat offenders, even for first offenses.

According to the panel, this approach makes it challenging to pay detailed attention to treatment and tends to concentrate on inmates requiring significant attention, possibly leading to cases of abuse. They recommended categorizing facilities based on the nature of offenses committed, with emphasis on addressing specific issues.

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