Elderly women are getting themselves sent to prison on purpose

It's often said that crime is a young man's game. You need to be strong enough to fight and quick enough to escape the police. There's a good reason why the older the demographic, the lower the crime rate. However, in Japan, it appears that quite the opposite is true. If the stats are anything to go by, crime is increasingly a game for older women.

While the USA may have a rapidly-rising female prison population, in the Far East, the number of elderly women being locked up is rocketing. Over the last two decades, the elderly crime rate has quadrupled - and more worryingly, it appears that many of these crimes are being committed by desperate individuals intending to be caught.

Of course, people getting themselves arrested intentionally is something that happens day-in, day-out, all over the world. So why this is different? Well, it's all to do with the scale of the problem. According to figures obtained by Bloomberg, at least 20 per cent of women in Japanese prisons are senior citizens. In comparison, just under three per cent of all federal prisoners in the US are aged over 65.

elderly woman shopping in Japan Credit: Flickr/ sekihan

The most common offence that women find themselves in prison for is shoplifting, with an astonishing 90 per cent of older women convicted of the crime being charged with this offence. But this isn’t simply a case of an entire generation going through their tearaway phase half a century later than planned, or chasing a (very) cheap thrill. Instead, the cause of Japan’s senior citizen crime wave appears to be rooted in a combination of loneliness and economic vulnerability.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the average age of Japan’s population as a whole is rising, with 27 per cent of citizens now aged 65 or above, according to 2016 World Bank estimates. In recent years, a shift away from the traditional approach of families and communities caring for the older generations has left them more isolated and alone than ever: "They may have a house. They may have a family. But that doesn't mean they have a place they feel at home," Yumi Muranaka, of Iwakuni Women’s Prison, told Bloomberg. According to a 2017 government survey, more than half of the seniors who are convicted of shoplifting live alone, with 40 per cent saying that they had no family or relatives to support them.

At the same time, a rise in pensioner poverty has left individuals struggling to support themselves financially. Bloomberg report that nearly half of women aged 65 or older who live alone also live in poverty, compared with 29 per cent of men. However, many are unwilling to place a financial burden on any family they do have. As a result, women who are too old for work, or who have never worked and thus have no savings, are left financially adrift. They're elderly, but not yet ill enough to qualify for help from the state's much-admired long-term elderly insurance programme, which provides care but is based on need alone.

Cityscape of Osaka Credit: Flickr/Pedro Szekely

And so, women are turning to crime in the hope that prison will afford them a sense of comfort, company and stability that they would be otherwise unable to maintain. One woman, identified by Bloomberg as Mrs K, 74, explained that for her, life inside prison is more comfortable than life outside: "I was living on welfare. It was hard. When I’m released, I will manage to live with 1,000 yen [$9] a day. I don’t have anything to look forward to outside." The rate of re-offending among elderly convicts is higher than any other age bracket, with a quarter of elderly inmates ending up back behind bars within two years.

Another, Ms O, 78, expressed that: "Prison is an oasis for me—a place for relaxation and comfort. I don’t have freedom here, but I have nothing to worry about, either. There are many people to talk to. They provide us with nutritious meals three times a day." She is currently serving her third prison term, having been sentenced to one year and five months for stealing items including energy drinks, coffee, tea, a rice ball and a mango. Both Mrs K and Ms O have children and grandchildren.

However, that doesn't mean that life in a Japanese prison is easy. Although the country has a very low crime rate in comparison with other developed nations, its prisons are intentionally tough in order to deter people from committing crime - and sentences are long. Prisoners are expected to work in silence all day, with some ex-inmates reporting that eye contact with guards is forbidden, that inmates must walk in single file and that bathing is restricted. It's surely a sad state of affairs that this is the better option.

A chain link fence Credit: Pixabay/JeffBalbalosa

In recent years, prisons have had to make changes in light of their aging populations. Under a plan approved in 2017, more than half of Japan's prisons are now set to recruit nursing staff, trained to care for elderly people. Older inmates are also often now given lighter tasks, such as folding napkins, while food is chopped into more manageable chunks. Prison guards are having to take on the responsibility of dealing with incontinence issues.

Getting intentionally sent to prison is something that we often associate with those who are most desperate, not with people with families that have, until now, enjoyed a relatively comfortable standard of living. However, in a country that is regarded by many as having one of the best elderly care systems in the world, owing precisely to the provisions it makes for senior citizens through its long-term care insurance programme, it's clear that many people - particularly women - are still slipping through the cracks.