Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the aging population in Japan’s prison system and the media’s role in keeping inmates in jail longer. One aspect of the issue that I didn’t explain in enough detail was what happens to ex-convicts, especially those who actually do get released on parole. As in the U.S. and other developed countries, people who are released on parole are monitored by parole officers to whom they have to report on a regular basis. The difference in other countries is that after a designated period of time, if the former prisoner has fulfilled the conditions of his parole properly, he no longer has to report to an officer and is deemed to have paid his debt to society. In Japan, however, such ex-cons are parolees for life, meaning they are considered to be in violation of parole if they ever do anything wrong and will promptly be returned to jail, probably for the rest of their life if their original sentence was an indefinite one. It’s another reason why so many convicted felons with indefinite sentences end up dying in prison.
The people who support this style of punishment will say that almost all the people sentenced to indefinite incarceration have been convicted of murder and so it should not be easy for them to obtain release. This justification brings us back to the original thesis of the column, which is that Japanese prison is about punishment and revenge, not rehabilitation. Vague by definition, indefinite sentences can be used by prosecutors to lock up criminals for life without their knowing about it, since many, it seems, think they have a chance of being released after a certain period of time, just the way the public does. It is an inherently dishonest form of punishment, because the convicted person doesn’t really know how long he will be in prison. In a way, it’s the same, only worse, for those sentenced to death. If the status is any indication, most death row inmates will die in jail of old age, all the while wondering when that fateful knock on the cell door will come.