Tag Archives: Prison

Japan Confronts Crime Wave With Aging Population

“It wasn’t great to get caught, but I just didn’t give a damn…” Fumio Kageyama

A crime wave among older people is underway in the world’s greyest nation. Just last year in Japan, the number of criminals over 65 overtook the number of teenage criminals for the first time since the country started publishing age-related crime statistics in 1989. Over a third of shoplifting crimes are committed by those over 60, and 40 percent are repeat offenders. Criminal offenses by those age 60 and over have also quadrupled between 1994 and 2014.

Photo Credit: Geoff Stearns
Photo Credit: Geoff Stearns

This curious phenomenon has its roots in the age-old problem of poverty and loneliness. Japan is an expensive place to live in, with even a frugal lifestyle costing 25 percent higher than the basic state pension. The cost of living simply does not match the pension rates of the elderly. Hence older people are committing crimes that result in imprisonment but assure them of food, shelter and healthcare. Loneliness is another factor that encourages crime among older people. About 40 percent of the elderly population live alone. Once released from prison, many do not have access to money, food or shelter, which perpetuates the vicious cycle of crime.

The rise in elderly crime is set against the gloomy national economy of the country. ‘Abenomics’ is a set of economic policies that are currently in place to revive Japan’s stagnant economy, and provide much-needed context to this crime wave. The impetus for these economic policies has been the two decade long stagnant national economy. Japan’s stock market and property bubble burst in the early 1990s, leading to long-term stagnant wages and markedly reduced spending. For the past two decades, the country has not seen any major economic improvement. Worsening the situation were the nuclear meltdown and natural disasters of 2011. Now Japan is caught between reducing the national debt and dealing with roughly 30 percent pensioner population.

‘Abenomics’ is a three-pronged strategy, encouraging monetary easing, government spending, and business deregulation. So far, critics remain unconvinced about the impact of these regulations, and current crime cases reiterate the ineffectiveness of these policies regarding the elderly population. The Japanese government has responded to the crime wave among older people with a short-sighted measure to increase prison capacity by a whopping 70 percent. This does little to address the crime spree that is embedded in poverty and lack of economic security. Furthermore, it takes a huge amount of resources to maintain a prison full of pensioners. A 2-year prison sentence can cost as much as USD 74,700 in a Japanese prison, compared to USD 6,900 on pension annually.

Inmates with health problems can even increase prison costs. In fact, a 2012 Justice Ministry report found that two-thirds of inmates had at least one health condition, including cardiovascular diseases, mental health illnesses, and behavioral disorders. This has resulted in prison guards often going above their disciplinary duties by changing diapers, cleaning inmates and helping them to walk. Japan can respond with long-term measures, such as prison reform, to prevent prisons from turning into dysfunctional nursing homes.

Namratha Rao recently graduated with a Master of Science in Public Health in Social and Behavioral Interventions from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Problem with Being Old and Incarcerated

In the January issue of The New Statesman, Britain’s leading weekly magazine of politics, culture, and international affairs, Andrew Katzen examined elderly inmates in British prisons. His article, “Should we be sending the elderly to prison”, argues that British prisons are slowly turning into dysfunctional nursing homes. According to Katzen, Partner at Hickman & Rose, prison conditions for the elderly are tough and little, if any, rehabilitative purpose is served in holding them. His main point is that Britain’s aging population is causing an increase in the number of old people behind bars hence a new and improved prison reform has to be considered.

This topic is quite controversial because it focuses on criminals who have broken the law. Therefore we need to be mindful of how these offenses were committed and to whom, especially since both victim and perpetrator are human beings. The ethical component of this issue is complex because, while the range of offenses differ, the state of elderly care in prisons needs improvement. Before this article tackles the reasons, there are a few things that need to be clarified. This article is not whether the elderly deserve imprisonment or about the type of sentence older prisoners deserve. Everyone is entitled to their opinions due to strong views about this subject. As a health care professional, the goal is to improve the social and natural environments in order to better the health of marginalized populations.

The world’s population is aging. According to the National Institute on Aging, the number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow from an estimated 524 million in 2010 to nearly 1.5 billion in 2050. This trend may result in a shift in prison demographics as prisoners will grow older whether they are young or new. A prime example is 82-year-old Teresa de Jesus Tello who was incarcerated in a Peruvian prison for an alleged case of drug trafficking…and she isn’t the only elderly prisoner. In Peru, there are 2,500 inmates over the age of 60 in prisons. Most of the elderly women are imprisoned for drug trafficking. While prison reform is important, it is important to tackle these issues in a sensible and sensitive way, involving all facets of society such as the public and private sectors.

Katzen’s article also discusses the design of prison estates stating that current designs are only suitable for the young and able. Although the issue is important, he fails to take into account the extra costs needed to build prison estates that are suitable for older prisoners. In developed nations, this cost can result in a tax increase which is often debatable. Alternatively, developing nations can make a case for better living conditions as prisons can be characterized as hazardous and chaotic places for offenders.

Although this topic is complex, societies can start with meeting the most basic personal activities such as carrying their meals and washing themselves, especially if prisoners are unable to care for themselves. Addressing the existence of chronic illnesses in older prisoners is vital and designing new environments should be considered for easier access and mobility for older populations. Moreover, appropriate medical care needs to be a priority for older prisoners as this can improve quality of life. As societies start to tackle this issue, the goal should be to prevent prisons from turning into dysfunctional nursing homes.

Sophie Okolo is the Founder of Global Health Aging.