Sunday, July 23, 2006

I Thought Singapore Was Bad

Brad Plumer has the blood-curdling inside story of one of the more vicious and inhumane death rows in the modern world.

It isn't Iran. It isn't China. It's Japan.
Welcome to death row in Japan. Prisoners are executed by hanging—a process known to produce "gruesome scenes of slow strangulation and even decapitation." And prisoners sitting on death row don't even know when they'll actually die. No one gives them a date. Prisoners aren't told "this day will be your last" until the actual morning of their execution, which can come at any time—days or months or decades after their appeals process is exhausted. Their families aren't notified until after they're dead. Everyone involved lives under the strain of uncertainty.
Needless to say, spending decades on death row, without knowing when it will all end, is liable to make even the most level-headed inmate insane and suicidal. It's gratuitous torture of the worst sort. And that's doubly true in Japanese prisons, where death-row inmates are forced to live in solitary confinement, cut off from other prisoners and allowed only intermittent outside visits as well as two short periods a week to leave their cells for exercise. Not surprisingly, many prisoners develop mental health problems—although, since Japanese courts often find defendants with mental disabilities to be "mentally competent," many of those on death row where already mentally ill when they came in.

To say this is all quite horrifying seems inadequate. And lest anyone thinks that these prisoners are probably all guilty of sin and deserve what they get, note that Japanese courts convict a staggering 99 percent of those accused of crimes—the highest conviction rate in the developed world. The odds that innocent people are frequently sentenced to death are very, very high.

Indeed, the entire Japanese criminal "justice" system is geared towards speedy conviction. Under the daiyo kangoku system, Japanese police can interrogate suspects in police cells for up to 23 days before transferring them to prison. There are few rules regulating interrogations, and a suspects' access to a lawyer is extremely limited during this time. Amnesty has long documented how the police use beatings, intimidation, and sleep deprivation to extract "confessions" from suspects for crimes they haven't committed. In the 1980s four men were released from death row after it was revealed that they signed such confessions under torture, but even though there's no reason to think this was a special case, death-row pardons are extremely rare.


H/T: Amber


Anonymous said...

1. Are we talking about "bad" for the prisoner or "bad" for the observer, who will probably live to see another day. Strangulation: bad for the prisoner. Decapitation: bad for the observer, VERY GOOD for the prisoner--quick and easy.

2. Good point about having no idea when they will die. I've been tortured by this thought ever since I was about twelve years old and understood that I would die. I'm now 69 and I keep asking someone, anyone, to stop torturing me and tell me WHEN, WHERE, HOW will I die? I can't stand it anymore. I think I'll kill myself--but I can't decide when, where, or how? Damn, the entire universe conspires against me and against those poor prisoners.

3. How unfair not to let the prisoner's loved one swatch him die. Again, my wife and kids would LOVE to know when, where, and how I'll die. Indeed, some of them can't wait to find out. We're so much more civilized here in California. We have a whole gallery of concerned folks gaze in awe as the prisoner dies.

4. Is the 99% conviction rate a result of innocents being convicted or of prosecutors being really careful about who they prosecute for capital crimes? Do you know? Did you ask? I don't know the answer, but I have the sense to ask the question before going asshole up and bare out in public.

5. The system is geared toward speedy conviction? Or, maybe, speedy trial? Gee, that's terrible, which is why it was so really stupid that the ignorant American founders wrote such a ridiculous notion into the United States Constitution. Why can't we not be in such a hurry, and let the prosecution meander and dawdle like it does in those enlightened nations like Rwanda, NIgeria, Russia, etc.?

6. Uh, FOUR prisoners released in one decade because of forced confessions? Oh, Japan must have one of those stupid Habeas Corpus-type provisions in their law. You know, the kind that American conservatives are trying to get rid of in the United States. You know, "You've had your trial, now stop bothering us."

7. You might wanna sleep on this kind of report before you prematurely ejaculate next time.

The probligo said...

Thanks, Tom.

I see no difference between Japan and US in terms of capital punishment.

Anonymous said...

There are important differences between the US and Japanese legal systems. In some ways, the Japanese criminal justice system looks horrible--few rights for the accused, the way they kill people, the frightening penalties they have for even small-scale drug possession.

In other ways, though, it makes ours look horrible. Very few people go to prison in Japan--in fact, most convicted felons are never sentenced to any jail time at all (convicted rapists are highest, at about 80%, Murderers somewhere in the 70%s, and robbery only in the 30%s, if I recall correctly). Even before that, the majority of cases police send to the prosecutors don't go to court because the prosecutors tend to let anyone off if they believe the offender is genuinely sorry for what they did (so in answer to Tom's question #4, only worst of the worst go to trial).

And yet, Japanese crime rates are stunningly low. Murder cases that only rate page 16 in Washington DC make the evening news on Japanese national TV because they're so rare. Women walk home alone in Tokyo at midnight. Through dark alleys. Drunk. Without being attacked.

How can they be so lenient on crime and yet have so little crime? We in America think those facts are contradictory. The answer is complicated. To oversimplify, the Japanese criminal justice system believes that reform and rehabilitation are important, not punishment for punishment's sake. It relies on the offender's social networks to reform/rehabilate the offender, not prison. On the other hand, if the justice system comes to believe that an offender is no longer bound to his/her social network, they will get rid of the offender (long prison sentence, death) and society agrees that those offenders don't really have rights any more. So they torture them, and kill them, and no one really cares. Again, that is an oversimplification, but it gets at the truth.

There is an academic debate about this, the views I've expressed here are closest to those of John Haley, if you're interested.

George (Carleton '91)

Anonymous said...

Okay, sorry I'm several days late replying to this post. I saw it shortly after it went up (via The Moderate Voice, but The Debate Link is also in my live bookmarks, so I would have seen it anyway.) I've been busy with my family, and there was a certain amount of reading that I needed to do in preparation for makeing this reply, but I'm finally replying. Sorry that the thread is starting to get cold. I saw the post before there were any comments, and I would have mostly said the same things, but, at this point, I'm going to structure the main part of my reply by addressing the points that Tom made.

1. People tend to think of hanging as barbaric. It can be. But, when conducted properly, and the operative word here is properly, hanging can be as humane as any other method of capital punishment used in the United States, and more humane than some. When the proper preparations and calculations are made by a competent hangman, the result should be nearly or instantaneous unconsciousness at the end of the drop. The drop last less than 1 sec. So I'm not going to fault the Japanese for hanging, as long as they are doing it competently. (But I have no idea whether they're performing it competently or not.) Even when performed properly so that the victim is unconscious as he dies, hanging will cause swelling and discoloration of the victim's face, thus the traditional use of the hood, at least in this country.

You can get a good overview of each of the five methods used in the United States at this site. (If you can't get through, try again later, as I've been finding that the site has been quite routinely exceeding its data transfer limit.)

Hangings have had a tendency to get botched, (according to this site, a lot of that had to do with the use of non-professional hangmen) and hanging doesn't necessarily look pretty, even when it isn't botched and unconsciousness is immediate, not to mention that we think of it as antiquated. Therefore, it has a bad reputation. However if you look at the site above, you can find a list of botched (a couple of them rather spectacularly) lethal injections. There's also something unsettling to me about the cases where the person being executed has had to assist those executing him in finding a vein. When a vein cannot be found, a minor surgical procedure, called a "cut down", is performend under local anaesthesia in order to reach a vein. This proceedure is not performed in view of the witnesses, and most of them don't know that it has been performed. From the information on that sight, it would also appear that, whenever anything goes wrong with the procedure, the blinds are closed in the witness rooms until things are straightened out. I find that somewhat unsettling, but that's another issue for another day.

2. Tom, since you suffer so much personal distress from not knowing when you are going to die, you certainly, more than most people, understand how good it would be for these people to know ahead of time when they will be executed instead of being kept in constant suspense. For most of us, our only recourse is to take the issue up with God, but, after reading the book of Job, that is not an approach that I would personally recommend. In the case of prisoners awaiting execution, it is quite possible for them to be informed of the date of their execution, and, according to you, that would be desirable for lessening the mental strain on them.

3. As for the families of prisoners in Japan not being allowed to watch them die...A friend of ours died of cancer last year. When it reached the point that death was imminent, friends and family took turns sitting with her. She was never left alone. This wasn't in any way unusual. Why should the condemned be any different than the rest of us in that respect. Many of them may not want to die alone.

Alowing the condemned to have their own witnesses present also serves another purpose. It is a safeguard to provide accountability for the state.

4. The 99% conviction rate is almost certainly the result of a legal system which relies heavily on confessions and which allows the police ample opportunity to extract them under duress. Suspects can be held in police custody for up to 23 days with no real limits placed on interrogation procedures.

"The JFBA reports, however, that in practice, when a serious offence is committed and when the suspect denies the charge, investigators often restrict his/her right to confer with counsel. They are authorized to do this under paragraph 3 of Article 39 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which states that investigators (police and prosecutors) "may, when it is necessary for investigation, designate the date, place and time of interview". The right to counsel is thus drastically limited; the JFBA reports that "counsel cannot see the suspect without the prior permission of the investigator in charge".(39) It is not unusual for lawyers to be granted permission to meet with suspects only two to three days after applying for permission, with interviews being limited to 15 minutes.

"Moreover, although the right to see court-appointed lawyers is provided for in Article 272 of the Japanese Code of Criminal Procedure, this right only applies to those defendants who have been indicted and does not apply to suspects under interrogation prior to being charged. A suspect’s ability to exercise the right to see a lawyer is therefore inadequate, and fails to comply with international laws and standards pertaining to the implementation of the death penalty."

Quoted from an Amnesty International document. I would encourage you to read the entire document. (Okay, skim the standard legalese-type portions, but read the rest of it.) Other recommended reading would be an Amnesty document describing the treatment of prisoners in regular Japanese prisons.

5. No, according to the first document linked to above, the Japanese court system is geared towards neither speedy trial nor speedy appeals. Those things all take years. And then, after the last appeal is exhausted, there's no way of knowing when the prisoner will be executed. Quite a few of them exausted their last appeal literally decades ago and are still waiting to be executed.

6. Actually, there is a case in the Amnesty document where one of the Japanese men on Death Row maintains his innocence, but does not want to pursue the appeals process. He feels that the outcome of the appeal is already decided, so why bother. I have heard of Death Row inmates in the U.S. declining to appeal, but never when they insisted that they were innocent.

Probligo, you questioned whether there was any difference between between Death Row in America and Japan. I can't definitively answer that question since I don't know as much as I would like to about conditions on Death Rows in this country, but I think there are some, one of which is that, as far as I know, once the last appeal is finally exhausted, we actually set a date for the execution. A last minute stay is possible in this country,and a dedicated phone line is kept available. That is not possible in Japan, since no one outside the prison knows about the execution. In fact, even members of the Japanese parliment, have not been able to get access to Death Row inmates, and they have tried. Also, the condemned in America are given access to any necessary religious rites before execution. I don't know whether Buddhist/Shintoists require any religious rites preparatory to death, but it would be pretty dificult for them to obtain them when they're not informed of the date.

From the Amnesty document I linked to above:

"Prisoners awaiting execution live under rules set out in a 1908 prison law (reinforced by a 1963 directive). They are banned from talking to other prisoners. Contact with the outside world is limited to infrequent and supervised visits from family or lawyers. They are not allowed to watch television or engage in personal interests or hobbies. A radio is permitted but prisoners have no say over the station to which it is tuned. Some prisons are reportedly allowed videos but this is at the discretion of the prison warden. Prisoners are reportedly allowed three books – although more may be borrowed with the express permission of the prison warden who checks that the content does not preach "subversion of authority". Exercise is limited to two short sessions per week outside their cells. A number of prisoners reportedly survive the isolation through reliance on sleeping pills.(26)"

I know that Death Row conditions in the US aren't great, and that they vary from state to state, but I'm pretty sure that the prisoners are not prohibited from talking to each other, and they are allowed to write letters. I expect that they are allowed more books, if they have money for them or have access to the prison library. Stanley "Tookie" Williams wrote books while he was on Death Row. I believe that a number of Death Row inmates have had the opportunity to pursue "personal interests or hobbies," depending on what they are, though this may be less true now than it was in the past. Budget crises over the last decade plus have dramatically reduced opportunities for regular inmates to pursue interests, hobbies, and education.

Solitary confinement for extended periods is genuinely problematic. In the last 20-25 years we've again started placing people in solitary for years at a time. There is a recently described psychiatric disorder known as SHU Syndrome. (SHU = Security Housing Unit or something equivalent.) SHU Syndrome is essentially an induced psychosis -- induced by extended isolation. Here is an overview of SHU Syndrome. As I was bringing my son home from an appointment today, he wanted to listen to NPR, so I happened to catch All Things Considered. They had a piece on the SHU at Pelican Bay in Caliornia. It seems that 10% of the SHU inmates are in the Psychiatric SHU - and there's a waiting list. The NPR series on Solitary Confinement is online. Although SHU Syndrome is only recently described, I don't believe that the phenomenon is new. The Quaker-model penitentiaries of the 19th century involved isolation of the convict in a cell with a Bible and visits from those offering spiritual counseling on the theory that this would lead to reflection and repentence. While this was done with the best of intentions, a significant number of the inmates were literally driven mad, even though they were not intentionally mistreated in any way. I don't at this time have a description of the actual symptoms of the madness to compare, but I think it's a good guess that that they substantially match SHU Syndrome. has a timeline of Solitary Confinement in the U.S.

SHU Syndrome has a lot of ramifications for a lot of situations, but that is also another issue for another day. Sorry I've let the thread get so cold before replying, and, ouch, I just previewed this, and sorry about the length.

The probligo said...


I based my comment solely upon the emotional reaction to capital punishment as a whole.

In US, a murderer can spend many years while the appeal process is expiring. The mental agony of that process (at least at a personal level) would be as bad if not worse than being told "today is your last day".

Ihave no rationality to back it up, it was an entirely emotional response.

Anonymous said...

I watched an investigative report on American tv about the Japanese justice system. The reason for the 99% conviction rate has nothing to do with prosecutors being careful. It has everything to do with Japanese customs.

In Japan if the police arrest someone they are expected to immediately sign a letter apologizing for the crime. These letters of apology are then used as an admission of guilt at trial. This why they have 99% conviction. Often the letter of apology is the only evidence the police are able to provide at trial.

The report showed one man who was arrested, who refused to sign an apology. He spent twenty years in prison before they released him for insufficient evidence because they couldn't get him to apologize.

If they stopped the practice of forcing apology's before trial Japans 99% conviction rate would fall and their police would have to adopt professional methods of law enforcement.