In a room shared by seven prisoners, the folded futon and bedding for three of them sits neatly beside black cases in which they can store their personal belongings during the day in Onomichi prison, Japan. Monday, May 19th, 2008.

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The over 60s are the fastest-growing group of criminals in Japan, which incarcerates its pensioners at a rate far higher than any other country in the industrialised world.

In my last post, I featured Tim Gruber’s photographs of aging prisoners in the U.S. As chance would have it, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert contacted me about his 4 hour assignment in a Onomichi prison in Japan, designed specifically for the detention of the elderly. Sutton-Hibbert’s photographs are a good point of comparison with Gruber’s photographs of elderly U.S. prisoners.

Sutton-Hibbert’s photographs from Onomichi prison accompanied a thorough investigation of aging Japanese prisoners by Justin McCurry:

The number of Japanese aged 70 and over charged with crimes trebled between 2000 and 2006, from 9,478 to 28,892, according to the national police agency. In Japan, while the number of charges against juveniles increased by 2% from 2000-04, there was a 125% increase among over-70s.

The number of Japanese aged 60 and over grew by 17% between 2000 and 2006, the number of prisoners in the same age bracket soared by 87%.

Most are inside for crimes, that seemingly result from poverty. Again, McCurry:

Of the 46,637 people over 60 convicted in 2006, just over half were found guilty of shoplifting, followed by 23% who had committed petty theft.

Criminologists blame record levels of poverty among pensioners, the breakdown of the extended family, and a lack of professional help for those with depression and other mental illnesses. […] The best chance many [elderly former-prisoners] have of security, decent healthcare and three meals a day is another stint behind bars. […] According to a recent justice ministry study, almost two-thirds of Onomichi’s older inmates will walk back through its doors within five years of their release.

That’s a recidivism rate as bad as that in the U.S. the world’s most renowned broken prison system. We must bear in mind that the U.S. prison system, by population, is roughly 28 times the size of the Japanese (and UK) prison systems. McCurry:

At 80,000, the prison population of Japan is approximate to that of the UK. However, 12% of Japanese prisoners are at least 60, whereas 2.8% of prisoners in the UK are 60 and over.

Regardless of geography, aging prison populations bring about the same challenges, health problems and associated expense. In Japan, about 1,000 prisoners have difficulty walking, feeding themselves or doing prison work. That is surely a figure dwarfed in the states, which has 124,900 prisoners aged 55 or older.


Prisons are designed for punishment. The punishment is the deprivation of liberty. Prisons are also designed for a minority of prisoners to ensure public safety and remove violent people off the streets. When it comes to aged people, the first legal constant must remain, but in the case of the second – and when a prisoner is clearly old and infirm – is a prison always the right place for society to mete out it’s judgement? In the case of the UK, Edmund Clark’s photographs and Erwin James’ commentary might help us come to some conclusions.

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Ramps for elderly inmates to walk up, leading to the bathroom, instead of using stairs, in Onomichi prison , Japan. May 19th 2008.

Elderly prisoners (in white) preparing lunches for their fellow inmates, presided over by a prison guard, in Onomichi prison, Japan. Monday, May 19th, 2008.

Many of the elderly prisoners suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes, with 70-80% of them receiving medication.

Following a roll call of names, elderly prisoners (and one pushing a stroller chair for stability) make their way to a room for their lunch,  in Onomichi prison, Japan.

Elderly prisoners playing Japanese board game ‘shogi’,  during recreational time in an indoor recreational room, whilst two fellow inmates use the exercise bikes, in Onomichi prison, Japan.  Monday, May 19th 2008.

Elderly prisoner exercising on a rowing machine in an indoor recreational room, watched over by guards, in Onomichi prison, Japan.  Monday, May 19th 2008.

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All images: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert

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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert‘s work has appeared in magazines such as Time, National Geographic, Italian Geo, Le Figaro, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and many others. For the past decade, Sutton-Hibbert has been one of the principle photographers for Greenpeace International. His work has taken him to over 40 countries, as far flung as Antarctica and Outer Mongolia. Sutton-Hibbert’s photography has been widely published and exhibited in Europe and USA. For 9 years, Sutton-Hibbert was based in Tokyo, Japan and recently returned to his native Scotland to live and work.