At the end of last year Dr Alison Spurgeon-Dickson, senior lecturer in applied psychology at the University of Cumbria, was invited to Japan to address the Japanese Prison Society seminar series. The request for Alison’s input came from Professor Kanazawa, who is known for his extensive research into the prison environment, and is head of the Japan Prison Society.
Alison is an acknowledged expert in the area of prison interventions and her presentation was an explanation of work within the UK prison system aimed at sharing areas of good practice, developing life and work skills in prisoners with the goal of preventing re-offending.
The Japanese system has little history of practising intervention, but they are in the process of developing psychological interventions and a suite of relevant offending behaviour programmes.
Alison spoke on alternative rehabilitation processes and practices in UK prisons, and as a result of the conference she is hoping to embark on a joint piece of research partnered by Professor Kanazawa and the Ministry of Justice in Japan.
While in Japan, Alison was invited into Fuchu Prison Tokyo, which is the largest prison in Japan. Given a guided tour by the governor, she was able to view current practices in Japan. “At first glance, they may appear similar on the surface,” says Alison, “but in fact there is a completely different, harsher regime in place.
“A major contrast though, is that there is very little violence. Prison officers live on site, so are readily available should any unrest start. The atmosphere is quite military in tone –when the governor enters an office, everyone stops working immediately, salutes and bows."
Alison discovered that prisoners there are not allowed to make eye contact with staff or visitors, nor to speak to prison officers, official visitors or to each other, and are expected to walk and eat in a certain way. The regime appears strict compared to many other penal systems around the world.
In general, across the Japanese prison sector, reoffending is at a high level, but violence is low. The pattern of crime leading to prison is interesting – there is less acquisitive crime than in the UK, but more vagrancy, violence and gang activity.
Alison continues: “The majority of offenders in Japanese prisons are over the age of 50. This is partly as a result of Japan’s ageing population, but also reflects the attitude of families to offenders. One transgression may be forgiven, but a second can mean they are shunned by their relatives and have nowhere to go when released, leading to higher levels of recidivism in this older sector of the population. The prison has a hospital attached which contains an oncology unit – prisoners don’t have to go off site for treatment, even for what are traditionally diseases of the elderly.”
Dr Alison Spurgeon Dickson JP is a Trustee on the Board of the Magistrates Association.