Japan's jails a sanctuary for seniors Japan's jails a sanctuary for seniors
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Japan's jails a sanctuary for seniors

    NHK World
    Producer
    For elderly people without close families, the prospect of living alone, and dying alone, can be terrifying. But some seniors in Japan are finding they can get care and camaraderie when they are locked up in prison.

    Why elderly living alone are increasing?

    Takako Suzuki (not her real name) is 76 years old and serving a prison sentence for theft. It's her second time to be incarcerated.

    While she is locked up at Kasamatsu Prison in Gifu Prefecture, central Japan, she received treatment for dementia, which has progressed so far that she can no longer do simple math.

    Suzuki began shoplifting after she turned 70. She stole food and daily necessities and has already accrued a long arrest record.

    Rehabilitation staff visit a 76-year-old inmate of Kasamatsu Prison

    She was diagnosed with dementia during her first spell in prison. After her release, it took just six days for police to arrest her for shoplifting again and send her back to prison.
    Kasamatsu Prison houses more than 300 women. One in five are at least 65 years old. Quite a few need help with routine daily tasks.

    Inmates engage in penal labor in the daytime, but Suzuki's dementia means she is unable to do the same work as others, so she's given simple manual activities to keep her occupied.

    A 76-year-old inmate of Kasamatsu Prison is forced to work alone.

    Suzuki also requires special attention at mealtimes. She has to sit away from other inmates to because she has a habit of stealing their food.

    She has raised two children and once worked in a department store and selling cosmetics. But she has lost her husband and became estranged from her children. There is no one else she can rely on.
    "I was alone at home. It was harsh. I felt miserable and cried," she says.

    She is completing her term soon. To help her stop committing crime, the prison is looking for a welfare facility to watch over her.

    One factor behind the rise in offenses by elderly women is an increase in single-person households. In Japan, more than 4 million elderly women are living alone. That's twice the figure for elderly men. This tendency is expected to increase, due to longer life span of women than men and also because divorced or unmarried women are growing in number.

    Among crimes committed by women aged 70 or older, shoplifting makes up 82.5 percent. With baggage stealing included, more than 90 percent are thefts.

    For living independently after completing terms

    To help aged inmates live on their own after completing their terms, the prison is putting more effort on rehabilitation. External physiotherapists come to assist walking and other exercises according to each inmate's condition. One inmate has regained the ability to walk. She says, "I could never stand or walk without holding on to something. I got much better. I like it here. I'm really grateful."

    For the elderly inmates who still have their health, the prison helps them to stay that way with exercise classes so they won't need nursing care when they leave.

    Kasamatsu Prison inmates exercising

    With the number of elderly prisoners rising, the prisons are struggling to recruit enough caregivers. At Kasamatsu prison, healthy inmates learn nursing care as part of vocational training and help fellow inmates.

    Inmate learns caregiving skills

    Prison warden Takao Hosokawa says, it's hard for prisons to deal with so many wheelchair-bound inmates. "We rely on healthy inmates and outside experts," he says. "And having our employees work as hard as they can."

    The rise of the elderly repeat offender

    Chikako Tanaka (not her real name) doesn't fit the image of a typical ex-convict. The 85-year-old speaks elegantly and dresses with care. But she recently completed an 18-month prison sentence for theft.

    The day she was released, she returned home with a member of a support group.

    It quickly became clear that she couldn't live in her former home again. The roof had been badly damaged, and there were signs of her mental decline. Her refrigerator was crammed with tableware.

    Before her incarceration, she was living on her own, and since she had no close friends to visit her, no one noticed the onset of dementia.

    A refrigerator packed with cups and plates. This is described as characteristic behavior of Alzheimer's sufferers.

    Tanaka used to work in a bar, and was not eligible for a pensions, so she lived on her savings. When those savings ran dry, with nobody to turn to for help, she began shoplifting.

    Ryukoku University professor Koichi Hamai says that some elderly women see prison as a way to escape from social isolation. He says it is a reflection of a problem that Japanese society is grappling with.

    Post-prison care

    Every prefecture in Japan has a support center to help former prisoners resettle into communities and try to reduce recidivism.
    The staff support elderly ex-prisoners who live alone and have no family or friends to rely on.

    This center in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, has been supporting Tanaka. They've found her temporary accommodation, where she can live for six months. In that time, they will help her to find a permanent home, complete applications for care services and prepare for a new life as a member of a community.

    The staff at the center held a birthday party when Tanaka turned 85. Tanaka said it was the first time in about two decades that she'd had a proper birthday celebration.

    The former inmate celebrates her 85th birthday.

    Tanaka is gradually readjusting to a life on the outside where, the support center staff hope, she will live out her final years.

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