The Washington Post has a very interesting article on Senator James Webb (D – VA)’s campaign to reform US criminal justice and prisons. Webb seems to be among the few senators who actually realizes how broken the US justice system is, with its obscene incarceration rate and often stiff penalties for minor violations. This is all to his credit, and I hope he succeeds in achieving some level of reform, but this is not the part of the article that caught my attention. Here it is:
Somewhere along the meandering career path that led James Webb to the U.S. Senate, he found himself in the frigid interior of a Japanese prison.
A journalist at the time, he was working on an article about Ed Arnett, an American who had spent two years in Fuchu Prison for possession of marijuana. In a January 1984 Parade magazine piece, Webb described the harsh conditions imposed on Arnett, who had frostbite and sometimes labored in solitary confinement making paper bags.
In his article about the Japanese prisons, Webb described inmates living in unheated cells and being prohibited from possessing writing materials. Arnett’s head was shaved every two weeks, and he was forbidden to look out the window.
Still, Webb said, the United States could learn from the Japanese system. In his book, “A Time to Fight,” he wrote that the Japanese focused less on retribution. Sentences were short, and inmates often left prison with marketable job skills. Ironically, he said, the system was modeled on philosophies pioneered by Americans, who he says have since lost their way on the matter.
I must admit that I know absolutely nothing about the history of prisons in Japan, and for that matter embarrassingly little about the history of prisons in the US. How much are Japanese prisons really modeled after American theories? Certainly the Japanese court system tends to give out shorter sentences for at least certain types of crime, but is there any truth to the idea that inmates leave with job skills? I could easily imagine that an ex-con in Japan is even more stigmatized in the job market than one in the US.