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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.

In 2008, Tim Gruber embedded at the Kentucky State Reformatory to photograph in the geriatric wing designated for elderly and terminally ill patients. The result is Served Out, a photography and multimedia project. Here, I featured six images included in the PPOTR/Cruel and Unusual exhibition, but you should check out Tim and Jenn’s website for more stellar images.

Both Tim and his wife Jenn Ackerman worked in KSR the same summer. Tim is unequivocal: their access was down to then-Warden Larry Chandler’s good grace and good sense. Chandler wanted people to see how their tax dollars were spent and understood photography as part of the transparency he insisted on for the institution. KSR even gave weekly tours of its facilities.

Tim and Jenn, after brief training, were given staff-badges and were free to go about their work in the prison. They moved down to La Grange, KY for the summer to make the project and it wasn’t easy; Tim blogged some of the challenges (one, two, three, four, five.)

When we spoke last October, Gruber was in discussion with the ACLU. Last month, his images were used to illustrate the ACLU’s latest report ‘At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly‘ (Tim’s announcement.)

Of course, the common knowledge of the problems of incarcerating the elderly shaped our discussion. From the ACLU report:

Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674%, substantially outpacing the growth of other government spending, and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending. […] It costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older. to put that number into context, the average American household makes about $40,000 a year in income.

In 1981, there were 8,853 state and federal prisoners age 55 and older. today, that number stands at 124,900, and experts project that by 2030 this number will be over 400,000, amounting to over one-third of prisoners in the United states. in other words, the elderly prison population is expected to increase by 4,400% over this fifty-year time span. this astronomical projection does not even include prisoners ages 50-54, for which data over time is harder to access.

The U.S. keeps elderly men and women locked up despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating that recidivism drops dramatically with age. For example, in new York, only 7% of prisoners released from prison at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions within three years. that number drops to 4% for prisoners age 65 and older.

But, also, Tim and I talked about the emotions and first-hand experiences statistics don’t capture – the need for alternative imagery of prisoners and their humanity; what it was like to work on the wings, sit with the men and witness death (“Tears would overwhelm me”); compassionate release, prisoner-volunteer medical assistants and how Tim’s imagery may effect change.



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