As Japan’s penal system struggles to cope with a rising number of older inmates, a number of prisons are taking unusual steps to help inmates stay healthy in mind as well as body.
The number of prisoners in Japan aged 65 or over increased almost five-fold in the twenty years up to 2013. This ageing prison population means institutions are bringing in innovative programmes to slow the onset of dementia in inmates, from yoga to hand-held video games.
Oita Prison, on the eastern coast of Kyushu, is one such institution taking steps to combat this growing problem. 21 percent of inmates at Oita Prison are over 65, slightly higher than the national average of 18.2 percent. For point of comparison, just 2.2 percent of the prison population in the United States is over 65. “After they [prisoners with dementia] are incarcerated, their condition worsens,” a prison official told the Mainichi Shimbun, who said he’s observed inmates calling out in confusion, hallucinating and hearing voices.
In October 2010, Oita Prison began a special programme aimed at preventing dementia in the prison’s ageing population. Inmates attend sessions two or three times a month, on a voluntarily basis. As well as lectures and exercise sessions such as stretching, the programme includes brain training with a Nintendo DS for each inmate in the programme.
“The DS is the most fun part,” says one inmate in his sixties who is serving time for fraud, adding,”I want to keep my brain sharp by practicing like this.”
In 1994, there were 450 over-65s in prisons in Japan; by 2013, that had risen almost five-fold to 2,228 (if that number still sounds low, it’s because Japan has a low prison population compared to other developed countries – 59 prisoners per 100,000 people). The overall prison population in Japan is actually declining, but the number of older inmates continues to rise.
Other prisons are offering aerobics and yoga sessions targeting older inmates, and programmes aimed to equip older people with the skills and knowledge to avoid alcohol abuse, another common problem.
But reoffending amongst older released prisoner remains a key concern, Hirofumi Nojiri, the warder in charge of the over-65s programme at Oita Prison, told Mainichi. “After they get out of prison, I hope they will take steps to continue to look after their [mental] health, such as using the DS. We need a support system for prisoners once they are released, too.”