My name is Terrance. I've just been released from prison in Japan. I was arrested in June 2002 in
the Narita International Airport by Japanese customs officials as I tried to enter Japan. I had 1 kilo of
hashish in my possession and I was convicted for violating the cannabis control laws of Japan. For my
crime I was sentenced to 5 years forced labor and sent to Fuchu prison in Tokyo. I had no idea how hard and lonely the next few years of my life were going to be.
Life in Japanese prison is very hard. Like the Nazi prison camps of WWII. Work is the main focus. The prison population is used as slave labor. The food you receive is barely enough to keep you alive. It consists of rice and soup. There is very little exercise except in the summer only twice a week for 30 minutes. During the winter they allow exercise for 3 times a week but they cut one of the 3 x 15 minute bathing periods. So during the winter there are only 2 x 15 minute baths. There is no heating or air conditioning in the prison. There are many cases of frostbite in the winter, heatstroke, and heat exhaustion in the summer. God forbid if you get sick and need medical attention. In order to see a doctor, or receive medicine a prisoner must fill out a form and wait for days. Generally, you will not be allowed to see the doctor unless you have a dire emergency. Tuberculosis is prevalent and there are many skin diseases due to the poor sanitation in the shower facilities. These are everyday realities in a Japanese prison.
On the first day of my arrival I was thrown into a filthy solitary cell and given a rulebook to read. The rulebook consisted of hundreds of rules for living in the prison. I was kept in this cell for three weeks and forced to perform menial labour, consisting of smoothing out the wrinkles in hundreds of aluminium cupcake doilies. Once I had finished smoothing out the entire carton the guard came to inspect my work. He reached into the box containing all the smoothed out doilies and crushed them all up again. I was told that I would have to do them over. After 3 weeks of solitary I was told that I would be starting to work in a training factory. During this training period you are shown how you will do everything in the correct manner. It was like a boot camp for Nazis. They have rules for how to walk, how to use the toilet, how to sit, how to place things in your cell, etc. etc. We were being systematically turned into automatons. Everything was drilled repeatedly into our heads. If we made mistakes during the training we were pushed around and screamed at. On two occasions I witnessed prisoners who were beaten for
their failure to cooperate. I personally experienced a physical beating and strangulation to the point of unconsciousness at the hands of no less than eight guards after only being in the prison for three months.
The reason for this beating was because I was not marching properly. I was singled out by the Factory boss for my offence and told to stand in the corner with my nose to the wall. After I refused this order the boss pushed his secret panic button, and the goon squad rushed into the factory and smashed me to the ground, beating and kicking me for extra measure. One of the goons grabbed my collar from behind and twisted it until my air supply was effectively cut off. Upon regaining consciousness, I found myself in the presence of the foreign prisoner's chief. He informed me that I would be placed in solitary confinement for a while until the prison authorities could decide what to do with me.
Back to solitary Japanese style.
The cell I was placed in this time had the window blocked and wreaked of piss. The walls were mouldy and the floor surrounding the toilet was too. There were lots of bugs to keep me company. Everything was taken out of the cell except for a filthy mattress. It was explained to me that I would have to sit in the middle of my cell and face my door all day long [from 7:30am-5:00pm]. I was told to keep my hands on my lap and not to move. That was my existence for an entire month! The little bit of rice and soup I had previously received, my daily allotment, was cut in half. If I wanted to use the toilet, I had to wait until the guard gave the signal twice daily. No exercise and 1 x 15minute shower every ten days! I was caught on several occasions exercising in my cell and time was added to my solitary confinement. After about 40 days, I was taken out of solitary and placed back in a factory to work.
After my stint in solitary I figured that I wouldnít have anymore trouble. Boy, was I WRONG! You see, I had been labelled a troublemaker by the guards, and I was continually being singled out for crazy infractions in the factory and in my cell. Not marching properly, improper sitting position while working, looking out the window, not bowing properly, washing my face in my cell...the list goes on and on. The rules are so numerous that you cannot possibly remember them all. But when you are labelled a "troublemaker", like I was, the rules don't matter anymore. The guards and factory bosses can use their discretion to bend and break the rules as they see fit. Well, it wasnít long before I'd had enough of the harassment. One guard in particular, named Chiba, was trying to make my life a living hell. Everyday he would come into the factory and do his best to break me down. It wasnít long before I was back in solitary for another month. At least I didnít have to take any more crap from Chiba for awhile.
During my second stay in solitary, someone down the hall from my cell tried to commit suicide by punching the glass in his window and using a piece to slash his throat. The guards tried to prevent everyone from looking out the cell door window, but I managed to see them carrying the poor fellow bleeding profusely from his neck before one of the guards began shouting at me to get back into my position on the floor. I still donít know if that guy died.
So many thoughts ran through my head while sitting motionless for hours on end. Never before in my life had I been caged and cut off from the world. I wondered what my wife and son were doing. My boy was only 6 months old when I was arrested and he was growing up without his father. While in solitary your monthly 15-minute visit behind a glass partition is not allowed, so I was not able to see my wife and son during the months that I was punished. I was not allowed to write my one monthly 7-page letter either. No communication with anyone whatsoever!
As I gazed at the stains on the wall, I thought about my travels in the past and surfing adventures, the feeling of the ocean. I always wondered what all of my family and friends were doing. So many times I would think of real food; a bar of chocolate, a cup of coffee. It is so strange all of the fleeting thoughts and visions that popped into my head. Many times, I wondered if I was strong enough to make it through the shit I was now facing. I made a vow to myself that I would get through this, and that suicide would never be an option for me. Prior to being in prison, I had lived in a Buddhist Monastery in Thailand for a few weeks. I learned many things from the monks during my stay. The knowledge I gained there was instrumental in my being able to deal with the suffering I experienced in prison. I practiced meditation daily. In this prison, I learned much about survival in the face of adversity. I was determined not to give up hope.
I ended up being thrown into solitary confinement five times during my stay in Fuchu. On March 25th 2005, I was lucky enough to be transferred to an American Federal Prison to finish serving my sentence.
I am only the 2nd American to be transferred out of Japan. Apparently, the Japanese prison authorities know that we will receive better treatment in American prisons, so they are making foreigners serve at least 50% of our sentences in Japan before they will agree to let us transfer.
When I arrived at the federal detention center in Los Angeles, I felt like I had died and gone to Disneyland. The difference in the two prison systems is incredible! The treatment I received in the American prison was humane and tolerable. The Japanese system lacks any trace of humanity. I believe that Japan needs to change many things about their prison system. Japan is one of the leading high-tech societies in the world, yet the prison system is a reflection of a draconian medieval society. The prisons operate under a veil of secrecy and silence that needs to be lifted. The truth needs to be known. That is why I am writing this article. Even though I am free today there are many people who are suffering daily in Japanese prisons. Yes, I was guilty of my crime, but I feel that nobody deserves to be tortured, abused, thrown away, and isolated from everything in a living hell.
Terrance David Sheard
Los Angeles [USA]