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Editorial: Despite escape, open-type prison facilities serve important role

The escape of an inmate from an open-type prison in Ehime Prefecture has raised questions about the management of such facilities. However, the importance of such prisons should be considered separately from measures to prevent inmates from escaping.

The 27-year-old inmate escaped from Matsuyama Prison's Oi shipyard, a rare open-style facility in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, on April 8. After spending 22 days on the run, the inmate was arrested in the city of Hiroshima.

Police mobilized approximately 15,000 officers to conduct a massive manhunt on Mukaishima Island in the Hiroshima Prefecture city of Onomichi, where the fugitive is believed to have hidden, but failed to find him on the island. Residents remained worried about the incident until the escapee was captured. The incident also dealt a serious blow to local tourism.

Matsuyama Prison's Oi shipyard was opened in 1961 and is known as "a prison without walls." All inmates at the facility are model prisoners. While living in a dormitory on the premises of the private shipyard, inmates engage in welding and other work with employees at the shipyard in the daytime.

The prison aims to train inmates to be cooperative and self-reliant in a group as they live just like in the real world, while helping to reintegrate them into society. There are four open-type prison facilities across the country including Matsuyama Prison's Oi shipyard.

Since the beginning of the current Heisei era in 1989, seven inmates have escaped from Matsuyama Prison's Oi shipyard in six cases. It goes without saying that it is necessary to thoroughly implement measures to prevent a recurrence by identifying blind spots in its surveillance of prisoners.

Still, it would be excessive to regard efforts to rehabilitate offenders at such open-type facilities as inappropriate.

According to the Justice Ministry, only 6.4 percent of those who left Oi shipyard after serving time there were imprisoned again, a figure significantly below the national average of about 40 percent, even considering the fact that only model prisoners serve time at the facility.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa has highly appreciated efforts to rehabilitate offenders at Oi shipyard, saying, "It's of great significance in preventing repeat offenses."

The man who escaped was quoted as telling investigators that he became "disgusted with relationships" at the prison. There are reports that he was distressed after being scolded on a few occasions for violating in-house rules at the prison.

At the three other open-type prison facilities, no inmate has escaped since the beginning of the Heisei era. Attention should be focused on whether there were problems involving the way Matsuyama Prison's Oi shipyard is being managed.

A member of a committee that the Justice Ministry has recently set up to consider escape prevention measures reportedly proposed to attach a GPS tracking device to inmates that they cannot remove. However, it would be counterproductive from the viewpoint of rehabilitating offenders to take measures that would excessively undermine inmates' self-esteem. Such measures would be inconsistent with the purposes of open-type prison facilities.

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