Inmates living in conditions not seen since the end of the war The problem of overcrowding in Japan's prisons has become so critical that inmates who are generally cowed into good behaviour by the strict regime could riot, according to the Ministry of Justice's Bureau of Corrections. According to the bureau's recent figures, more than 81,000 inmates are detained in prisons and homes designed to accommodate 78,000. This is the highest figure since the years immediately after the end of the second world war. 'We know that in other countries there have been incidents such as strikes and riots that were triggered by the problem of overcrowding and it is possible it could happen in a Japanese prison too,' said Katsuhiko Jimbo, a spokesman for the bureau. 'All we can do for the moment is to try to train the inmates to keep order, to make efforts to gauge their mentality and how they are feeling, and to enforce strict rules.' Tightening the already strict regulations for which Japan's penal system is notorious, however, might have the opposite effect. 'Today, overcrowding is one of the most serious problems of prisoners' rights in Japan,' said Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer and head of the Centre for Prisoners' Rights. 'For example, eight inmates now occupy cells built for six people,' he said. 'Efforts are now being made by the Ministry of Justice to imprison seven or eight people with double bunk beds in cells, while meeting rooms and storerooms are being turned into cells to alleviate the overcrowding. 'This problem is causing undue hardship for the inmates. Cramming too many people into small cells causes friction among the prisoners, which leads to altercations with the guards.' Elsewhere, libraries are serving as dormitories and inmates are being served meals in workshops. 'Conditions for both prisoners and guards working in these facilities are getting sharply worse,' Mr Kaido said. 'We do not doubt this is one of the most serious causes behind the increasing number of suicides among prisoners.' According to the rights group, seven inmates committed suicide in 1997, and 129 attempted suicide. Five years, later, 18 committed suicide, whereas the number of attempted suicides was not released by the authorities. To its credit, the ministry accepts that prison overcrowding is becoming a critical problem. Earlier this year, the Japanese Diet passed a bill concerning the treatment of inmates awaiting sentencing, part of a raft of measures to revise the Prison Law - enacted in 1908 and unreformed in the intervening 98 years. The ministry agreed it was 'outdated in terms of both substance and form'. A new panel, the Correctional Administration Reform Council, has been tasked with improving rehabilitation and resocialisation of inmates, improving the working conditions of prison staff and making the administration of the prison system more open to the public. It has also instituted a crash prison construction scheme to meet demand. New wings were added to several prisons by the end of last year, providing room for 1,900 extra inmates, according to Mr Jimbo, whereas a budget has been secured for construction of facilities for a further 4,600. A new prison is due to be completed next year in the town of Numatacho, on the most northerly island of Hokkaido, but the Centre for Prisoners' Rights says plans to mimic penal systems abroad and introduce privatised prisons 'will not solve the fundamental problem of an increasing criminal population'. After studying privatised facilities in the US and Britain, the ministry approved the construction of the first private facility in Yamaguchi prefecture. The jail is due to open its gates next year. But the fundamental problem of a rising prison population remains. Crime figures have risen sharply throughout the years of Japan's economic recession, the correlation visible in the fact that a mere 37,164 people were in detention in 1993, the year the recession began to bite, and the lowest annual figure since the end of the war.