Prison conditions generally met international standards, except that several facilities were overcrowded, did not provide prisoners in solitary confinement with adequate access to potable water, or lacked sufficient heating in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. In some institutions, clothing and blankets were insufficient to protect inmates against cold weather. Most prisons did not provide heating during nighttime hours in winter despite freezing temperatures, subjecting inmates to a range of preventable cold injuries. Foreign prisoners in the Tokyo area presented to visiting diplomats during the year chilblains-affected fingers and toes of varying severity, the direct result of long-term exposure to cold. On September 8, Kobe District Court ordered the government to pay 43 million yen (approximately $558,000) to the family of a man who died in 2006 while a prisoner in the Kobe Detention House, finding the facility at fault for failing to seek medical assistance for the man, who family members claimed froze to death.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that prison management regularly abused solitary confinement rules, which set a maximum of three months, but with the possibility of extension every month thereafter if deemed necessary. Prison officials stated that solitary confinement is important in maintaining order in prisons at or above capacity. An NGO noted that during the year officials became more sensitive to the needs of ill detainees held in isolation in the wake of two deaths in 2010.
Authorities reportedly held prisoners condemned to death in solitary for an average of almost eight years until their execution--and according to Amnesty International (AI) in March, some of these prisoners were kept in solitary for decades--although authorities allowed them to receive visits by their families, lawyers, and others. AI also concluded that a number of death-row inmates had become mentally ill as a result of the isolation, although authorities summarily denied requests for their mental health records so no independent determination could be made. The law states that a prisoner’s insanity is grounds for suspending an execution, but the government reported that there has never been such a case.
Reliable NGOs and foreign diplomats also reported that some facilities continued to provide inadequate food and medical care. Foreign diplomats confirmed numerous cases in which the prison diet was inadequate to prevent significant weight loss, including loss of muscle mass. Cases of slow and inadequate medical treatment were documented, including in detainees and prisoners with preexisting medical conditions. Police and prison authorities were particularly slow in providing treatment of mental illness and continued to have no protocol for offering psychiatric therapy. NGOs, lawyers, and doctors also criticized medical care in police-operated pre-indictment detention centers and immigration detention centers. Poor sanitary and health conditions in the latter continued to result in complaints of common fungal infections among detainees. In the July 4 report of her July 2010 visit, the UN special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation raised concern about prisoner sanitation in protection cells.
As of October there were 70,624 prisoners, a slight decrease from 2010. This figure, which counts detained defendants and suspects as well as sentenced prisoners and convicts, included 5,330 female prisoners and 29 minors. Men and women prisoners were held in separate facilities in prisons and detention centers. Although the national prison population was significantly less than the country’s facility capacity of 90,182 (in 2010), 13 prison facilities experienced overcrowding. Sentenced female prisoners, more than 120 percent of capacity nationwide, experienced the most constrained conditions. Minors were held separately from adults in prisons and regular detention centers, but regulations do not require that minors be held separately in immigration detention centers. Having acknowledged that overcrowding was a problem, the government expanded prison capacity by approximately 7,400 persons between 2007 and 2010.
Reliable NGOs and foreign diplomats reported throughout the year that pretrial detainees routinely were held incommunicado for up to 23 days before being allowed access to persons other than their attorneys or, in the case of foreign arrestees, consular personnel. Authorities often limited prisoners’ access to visitors to immediate family members. The law allows for broad religious observance within prisons, as long as these activities do not interfere with prison management. Prisons are also required to allow for consultations with prison chaplains, but the frequency of visits and the range of religions represented varied widely by prison. As a result, routine access to religious observance was not guaranteed, and foreign diplomats stated that prison officials repeatedly rejected some prisoners’ requests to join religious meetings by citing limits on group size.
While authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of credible allegations of inhumane conditions, they provided the results of such investigations to prisoners in a letter offering little detail beyond a final determination. Alternative and suspended sentences were commonly used for first-time and nonviolent offenders.
There were no ombudsmen serving on behalf of prisoners and detainees, although prison management regulations stipulate that independent committees inspect prisons and detention centers operated by the Ministry of Justice and detention facilities operated by police. The committees--which included physicians, lawyers, local municipal officials, representatives of local communities, and other local citizens--conducted visits and interviews and made recommendations during the year.
By law there is also an inspection process for immigration detention facilities, but it was not completely independent. Domestic and international NGOs and international organizations noted throughout the year that this process failed to meet international prison inspection standards, citing the Ministry of Justice’s provision of all logistical support for the inspection committee, the use of ministry interpreters during interviews with detainees, the lack of repeat visits to the same facilities, the ability of prison officials to screen lists of detainees to be interviewed, and the ability of ministry officials to access a locked mailbox where detainees may submit complaints to the committee.
There is no inspection procedure for observing the country’s 52 juvenile reform facilities.
During the year the International Committee of the Red Cross did not request any prison visits.