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Japan Prisoners Are Underemployed

March 4, 1999

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s economic slump has left millions jobless and put thousands of companies out of business. Now it’s even putting a pinch on labor behind bars.

Though prisons have long supplied parts to small companies for processing and retail, those companies have been hit hard by Japan’s poor economy and officials say many can no longer afford to keep buying.

The result _ underemployed inmates.

``We are having trouble finding work for inmates,″ said Takanori Kawahara, an official at the Justice Ministry’s correction bureau. He said many manufacturers have canceled contracts or requested production cuts.

As of the end of January, 86 of 1,600 contractors across the nation have canceled their contracts, while 97 others have requested production cuts, officials say.

The declining number of contracts is a serious concern for corrections officials because prison sentences in Japan often include both the requirement of time behind bars and compulsory work.

Prison officials stress that the lack of contracts doesn’t mean all inmates are getting a vacation. So far, only 2,137 of Japan’s 40,000 inmates have been directly affected, according to the latest ministry statistics.

But officials fear that the trend could get worse, and have stepped up efforts to find new contracts by making daily visits to factories and handing out advertisement brochures.

``We can’t afford to lose any more contracts,″ said Hirohisa Furutsuka, a spokesman for the Tokyo Regional Correction Headquarters, which oversees 17 prisons in Tokyo and 10 of its neighboring areas, where 10,000 inmates serve.

``We don’t want to see prisoners just sitting around,″ he said.

At a typical Japanese prison, inmates work an eight-hour shift, five days a week. They receive an average of little more than $25 a month. The money is paid them upon their release.

Most of the contractors are small family-run factories. The contractors bring the raw materials to prisons for processing. The products range from machine parts to stuffed dolls and furniture.

It’s a good deal for small factories because they don’t need to pay for the utilities, the facilities, overtime or health insurance, Furutsuka said. ``We try to emphasize that part.″

Furutsuka added that the arrangement is also good for the government _ in 1998, the government earned $101 million from such labor.

The government also funds another work project in which about 8,000 skilled inmates make ceramics, furniture and other crafts sold with a made-in-prison label. Sales of these goods earn an additional $125 million, but are also declining because of the economic slump.

Prison officials say one of the hardest-hit facilities has been a prison in Nagano, which had previously been booming with business related to the preparations for last year’s Winter Olympics.

But by April, they expect to lose five of 33 contracts and reduced production from 10 others.

To turn things around, prison officials are hitting the pavement, taking turns with daily visits to local companies, said prison official Yukio Asada.

They have already visited more than 200 factories. The result _ only six new jobs.

``We really have to continue looking for more work,″ Asada said. ``We can’t have inmates just dig a hole in the yard to kill time.″

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