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Tokyo NPO group opening cafe for former convicts to help them return to society

Hiroshi Igarashi, who runs the nonprofit organization Mother House, and his staff, including former convicts, are seen preparing for the opening of a cafe in Tokyo's Sumida Ward in August 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- An incorporated nonprofit organization here helping former convicts return to society was to open a cafe on Sept. 1 where such people can work and get together. Hiroshi Igarashi, the 54-year-old leader of the group "Mother House," says he wants to promote "a connection between rehabilitating people and their local communities."

Igarashi himself is a former convict who spent almost two decades in prison for three crimes including fraud. His family gave up on him and Igarashi thought about killing himself at one point, but priests he exchanged mail with helped him turn around his life. Igarashi felt that he was being cared about for the first time in his life, because those priests were "sparing their precious time for a total stranger like me," he explained. He began to read the Bible time and again, and came to realize the gravity of the crimes he committed.

Igarashi was released from prison in December 2011, and began to correspond with those incarcerated as a volunteer. He then initiated programs to support the lives of those released from prison, launching the group using profits from the sale of imported coffee beans and donations. With Igarashi's help, some 50 people have found jobs and begun new lives.

His new cafe project came out of such activities. Igarashi knew that many former convicts tend to be isolated even after their release, and he wanted to create a place where they could work or mingle. He is running a crowdfunding project to support the cafe initiative and preparing for its opening with his staff.

A 48-year-old man came to Mother House after his release from a prison in the Kanto region near Tokyo in July. He had just served his sixth prison term for drug convictions. Igarashi corresponded with him for two years, and interviewed the man after his release, and helped him settle down and apply for welfare assistance. He will work as a staff member at the organization while looking for a job. "I want to do what I can as much as possible," the man said.

Not all of Mother House's activities are successful. Of the 350 convicts who corresponded with the group, only some 50 actually sought help from the organization. "It's up to them to change, but people who really want to change need support," Igarashi explained. Unfortunately, some former convicts commit crimes again.

Moreover, those released from prison are often treated harshly as they try to rehabilitate themselves. "Should those who have completed their terms be treated as criminals forever?" asks Igarashi in lectures he holds at universities and churches every month, explaining that those former convicts often keep a fresh sense of atonement. Igarashi seeks social understanding by sharing his own experiences.

At the cafe, volunteer university students will work as staff members. Associate professor Yasuhiro Maruyama of Rissho University, a specialist in criminal justice policy and one of those who called for the cafe's establishment, explained that there are studies indicating that the availability of jobs and accommodations after release from prison affect the chance of a convict committing new crimes. "It is important to have a place to lead a life in society," he said.

(Japanese original by Akira Iida, City News Department)

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