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Yokohama prison inmate's letter exposes flaws that led to large coronavirus cluster

A copy of a letter written by a male inmate informing their lawyer of an imminent "crisis" from a coronavirus cluster at a prison in eastern Japan is seen in this photo taken in Yokohama on Feb. 10, 2021. (Mainichi/Nami Takata)

YOKOHAMA -- Since December 2020, coronavirus infections have been spreading throughout a prison in the city of Yokohama, south of Tokyo, in what is the largest confirmed cluster at a Japanese correctional facility.

    As of Feb. 10, a total of 146 people, including 129 inmates and 17 employees, were confirmed infected with the coronavirus at Yokohama prison in the city's Konan Ward. The Mainichi Shimbun investigated how the infection outbreak took place, and through a convict's letter to their lawyer gained a glimpse of the current reality in prisons.

    "We are on the verge of a cluster outbreak crisis," wrote a 76-year-old male inmate on Jan. 4, before a coronavirus cluster was confirmed at the prison. The man's 11-year sentence was finalized in 2016, and he has been detained in a single-person cell. He is currently preparing to file a request for retrial, and in his regular letter correspondence with his defense counsel Shizu Yamamoto he described how coronavirus infections were spreading.

    The first infection, found in a prison officer, was confirmed at the Yokohama prison on Dec. 15. The inmate apparently heard through an announcement over the prison PA system on Dec. 20 that a prisoner had contracted the virus, and found out about the officer's infection on Dec. 25.

    According to the man's letter and Yamamoto, drastic changes were seen in inmates' living conditions from the day following the PA announcement. Factory work, outdoor exercises and mobile health care services offered once a week were suspended to prevent infections. Cooking, which convicts were in charge of, has not been allowed since Jan. 10, and meals are now limited to bento boxes and emergency rations. On Jan. 12, visits to the prison were banned as a general rule, the man said.

    Infections spread dramatically, and 102 inmates had tested positive by the end of January. As of early January, the Yokohama prison kept 889 inmates under detention, compared to its maximum capacity of 1,225 people, and it can be calculated that over 10% of inmates were infected. The man said that inmates had not been given information other than that from the news, and claimed that the facility "has not notified inmates at all on which factories infected employees and inmates had been at."

    The 25 inmates whose infections were confirmed in early January worked at a factory manufacturing plastic products. The virus appears to have spread there, but according to the Yokohama prison it had inmates wear cloth masks during work from summer 2020 at the latest. Kotaro Takagi, a lawyer specializing in prison human rights issues, said, "Factory work is usually done in groups of around 60 people. It is possible infections spread while inmates worked in confined spaces with insufficient ventilation."

    According to the prisoner's letter and other sources, inmates are not allowed to wear masks when not working, and one cloth mask was finally distributed to each inmate on Jan. 7. Purchasing masks or receiving them from people outside the prison is prohibited at the facility, and the inmate wrote in a Jan. 20 letter: "I can't wear the mask when it's still drying from me washing it after it's gotten dirty." The letter also stated that disinfection equipment for inmates is insufficient, and that there are "noticeable deficiencies and incompleteness in preventative measures against infection."

    According to the Ministry of Justice, Yokohama prison inmates aged 65 and older accounted for 14.4% of all prisoners as of Jan. 1. Individuals in this age group are at greater risk of developing severe symptoms if infected, leading Kyosuke Kenmochi, head of the Kanagawa Bar Association, to issue a statement on Jan. 28, which said, "It is hoped that countermeasures can be taken swiftly to the maximum extent to prevent the spread of damage." The statement also touches on the visitation ban, saying, "Depriving them of opportunities for visits by others across the board without enacting any alternative measures whatsoever is clearly taking things too far, and the prison needs to respond to cases while considering each individual's situation."

    Koji Wada, a public health professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, said, "In the same way that clusters have occurred at care facilities for the elderly and at student dorms, infections can spread easily in prisons where people live in groups. Prisons must avoid bringing in the virus from outside, and take countermeasures to prevent its spread by carrying out tests at an early stage."

    The Yokohama prison said that it moved some inmates to external penal detention facilities, and kept them in single-person cells, among other anti-coronavirus measures. The facility has resumed accepting inmates as it deemed infections to be contained, and there have reportedly been no individuals that developed severe symptoms.

    This Feb. 7, 2021 photo shows the Yokohama prison where a coronavirus cluster occurred. (Mainichi/Nami Takata)

    A representative said, "The coronavirus outbreak caused anxiety for local residents, which we sincerely regret. We are arranging a system to continue operations without hindering the administration of the facility. Moving forward we will strengthen and reinforce preventative measures against infections."

    (Japanese original by Nami Takata, Yokohama Bureau)

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