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Prison chaplains struggling mentally, financially

October 15, 2008

From The Yomiuri Online

This is the seventh installment in a series of articles focusing on capital punishment.

Under the lay judge system starting in May, lay judges chosen from among the public will participate in decision-making processes that could result in death sentences.

A Christian prison chaplain said he always felt embittered when he saw a string for a light hanging from the ceiling in his church because seeing it reminded him of one of the executions he attended.

“It inspires an image of a white rope that I saw through blue curtains in the execution chamber,” he said.

A Buddhist priest who worked as a prison chaplain for more than 30 years said he heard a hanged man thrashing behind the curtains as he was leaving the execution chamber after having a last talk with the condemned inmate.

After returning to his temple that evening, the priest wrote about his feelings in a blank space in a book: “The victim’s fate was tragic, but why should the offender die for that?”

Many prison chaplains feel themselves on the horns of a dilemma in that they take part in the execution process while at the same time telling the public how precious life is as religious activists.

“I’m too depressed to be alone after an execution,” one chaplain said. “When I return from a detention center, I ask others in my church to pray together. Honestly speaking, I want to quit the job of prison chaplain.”

Shinshu Otani-ha, a Kyoto-based Buddhist sect that dispatches priests as prison chaplains, in 1998 issued a statement saying that carrying out death penalties runs counter to the sect’s religious teachings.

But a Buddhist monk with a long career as a prison chaplain said: “Our job is to face people who will be executed under law and make them aware of their own sins. So we must not voice doubt about capital punishment.”

The burdens borne by prison chaplains are not only mental in nature.

In November last year, about 200 prison chaplains from across Kyushu gathered at a hotel in Saga for a meeting to learn how crime victims feel about the people who have committed crimes against them.

Yumiko Yamaguchi, 58, who was seriously injured during the hijacking of an express bus of Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co. in 2000, was invited to the meeting as a speaker.

Prison chaplains pay all the costs for such events out of their own pockets. The government offers no assistance.

Though prison chaplains and probation officers are both volunteers, they are treated differently, as the latter can receive funds from the government for similar activities.

One Buddhist priest working as a prison chaplain complained, “If prison chaplains hold a large-scale study meeting, local prison chaplains have to spend millions of yen in total from their own pockets.”

Some prison chaplains insisted they can freely decide details of talks with death row inmates without concerning themselves over the opinions of detention center officials, because they do not receive any public assistance.

But many other prison chaplains are calling for government assistance.

According to the Justice Ministry’s Corrections Bureau, the government pays only transportation expenses for prison chaplains–about 6.6 million yen in total per year. In contrast, the government spends about 5.8 billion yen a year for probation officers.

Christian prison chaplains who use bread and wine in religious ceremonies for inmates have to buy them in advance and bring them into detention centers at their own expense.

A Buddhist statue placed in the execution chamber of the Tokyo Detention House was repaired last autumn, with prison chaplains donating about 1 million yen toward the cost.

A senior Justice Ministry official said the government cannot offer more assistance to prison chaplains.

“We understand the importance of their jobs. But since the Constitution stipulates separation between the state and religion, it’s difficult for the government to commit,” the official said.

Japan’s history of prison chaplains began in 1872, when a priest of the Jodo-Shinshu sect of Buddhism visited a prison in Nagoya to deliver a religious speech.

In the last years of the Meiji era (1868-1912), the government established a system under which religious activists were employed as detention center officials and permitted to provide moral instruction at the government’s expense.

But after the current Constitution was enacted after the end of World War II, the job became a volunteer position.

One prison chaplain with a long career lamented: “Recently, detention center officials don’t enthusiastically recommend chaplain services to death-row inmates, saying the government can’t force them to accept religion.”

Toshioki Hirano, 68, head of Zenkoku Kyokaishi Renmei, a national association of prison chaplains, and also a prison chaplain at the Tokyo Detention House, said the number of cases of death row inmates receiving chaplain services has not increased compared with the recent rapid increase of death sentences.

Finding new prison chaplains also is a serious concern.

“Conventionally, incumbent chaplains name their respective successors,” Hirano said. “But it’s difficult with this method to secure a sufficient number of skilled younger chaplains. I believe the time has come for the government to seriously consider this problem.”

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