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Errant Elders Find Amenities in Japan's Jails

He got four years in prison -- a light sentence for what appeared to be a mercy killing. He is eligible for an early parole if one of his three siblings takes him in. They have refused, and have even asked him not to return to their home town on the breezy Sea of Japan.

"I guess I can understand -- I killed our mother," he said, wearing a gray jumpsuit and staring down at his hands as he wrung them. "But now I have nowhere to go. Here, at least, I am well cared for. I have made many friends and I feel safe. It is getting out that makes me feel more anxious."

Particularly harsh societal judgment on those who commit crimes has made reintegration into society for repeat offenders exceedingly difficult. It is not uncommon for shamed Japanese families to erase related criminals from their lives.

"My three sons will no longer speak to me, and my wife's family forced her to divorce me," said a 75-year-old resident of the Onomichi's senior citizens ward who also asked to be identified by only his initials, S.I. He said he committed his first robbery at age 61 after the coffee shop he owned went bankrupt. Since then, he has been jailed four times for theft -- most recently in 2003. "This is my home now. There is a lot of discipline here, but life is not so bad."

Alarmed by what they have seen, Japanese law enforcement authorities have launched a two-year study of the social causes behind elderly crime. But the effects are already being felt inside Japan's overcrowded prisons.

The proportion of prisoners 60 and older in Japan reached a record 14.5 percent in 2004 -- almost triple the U.S. rate, according to government statistics. That has contributed to rising prison health-care costs, which jumped 12 percent over the past four years, as well as overcrowding. Prison occupancy has swelled to 117 percent of capacity, compared with 79 percent a decade ago.

Prisons have been forced to adapt. None has gone as far as the one here in Onomichi, a town in Hiroshima prefecture about 400 miles southwest of Tokyo. The prison set aside areas for elderly prisoners as far back as 1985, but officials began taking additional steps in the late 1990s. Today, the feeblest 35 of the prison's 46 inmates over age 60 have been moved to the senior ward, where handrails have been placed in the halls and alongside toilets.

To avoid climbing stairs, the 35 men are grouped on one floor and, if needed, are provided walkers to help them get to nearby workstations, a recreation room and steam baths. They have shortened work hours -- with their labor consisting mostly of folding paper bags. A portable Japanese straw mat is kept on hand if any of them feels faint and needs a rest.

"The social problems associated with the aging nation are being reflected in the growing number of elderly prisoners," said Takashi Hayashi, Onomichi's deputy superintendent. "That is forcing our prisons to take the same measures as elderly-care homes. These men are paying for crimes, but we also have an obligation to provide them with care. It is not easy, but that is what we are trying to do."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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