Unmasking capital punishment

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct 15, 2008

Chaplains play key role in death-row inmates' lives

Tokyo, Japan -- 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.

"I think my number's up," said a death-row inmate to an elderly chaplain holding a Bible as they sat in a prayer room in a corner of a detention house, a Christian cross hanging above them.

The inmate spoke of his fears at a time when the pace of executions of death-row convicts had quickened under then Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama. Even those whose death sentences had been finalized after his had already gone to the gallows.

The man had committed a heinous crime--multiple murder carried out due to a grudge.

Over the years, the chaplain had slowly convinced the inmate that revenge is wrong.

"I wouldn't be here if I'd realized that before," the inmate was quoted by the chaplain as once telling him. The priest took the comment as an indication of his repentance.

"I only wish he'd encountered Christianity before committing his crime," the chaplain said ruefully.

Caring for convicts a tough job

An elderly Buddhist priest said he still remembers a telephone call he received about 10 years ago from a senior official at a detention house.

"We'll execute him tomorrow," the official told him, referring to an inmate the priest had talked to on many occasions. "Please don't tell anyone this news, not even your family members."

The death-row inmate to be executed the following day had committed many robberies and murders.

Despite speaking with the man for many years, the priest remained uncertain whether the inmate had truly reflected on his past conduct.

The next morning, the man arrived at the waiting room to the gallows.

"Good," the man said as he took a sip of sake that was offered at the Buddhist altar in the room. But at that moment, the priest saw that the man's hand, which was holding the cup, was shaking.

Shortly before the execution, the man suddenly hugged the priest, and he felt the inmate's body tremble.

Though the priest said he had memorized some final words he wished to say to the inmate, which stretched to two sheets of 400-letter writing paper, he felt he could not afford to spend time delivering them.

He was still patting the inmate on the back to comfort him when the curtain to the execution chamber opened. The man was taken from the priest and led toward the trapdoor.

Chaplains are usually not allowed to see the moment of execution.

"I still think I would like to have stayed with him until the last moment," the priest said.

Important roles

Chaplains are the only civilians who are allowed to visit condemned inmates without being separated from them by the acrylic divider in the interview room. About 1,700 chaplains meet inmates as volunteers at detention houses and prisons across the country.

Chaplains urge most inmates at prisons to improve and correct themselves through religious services in preparation for their eventual return to society. However, at their meetings with death-row inmates, held about once a month, chaplains can try only to help the condemned accept death with equanimity.

"When serving a chaplainship at most prisons, there's hope that an inmate can be reformed. On the other hand, it gets me down when I go to the detention house and meet condemned inmates for whom I can have no such hope," a chaplain said.

Another chaplain said he never bids farewell to death-row inmates with "until next time" when leaving an interview room.

"They may be executed before our next meeting," he said. "We shouldn't give them false hope."

Death-row inmates are allowed to speak with the chaplain of the religion they follow.

The Tokyo Detention House, where 13 chaplains meet 50 condemned inmates, for instance, pays attention to balancing the religious services provided, with seven chaplains providing a Buddhist service, four for Christianity and two for Shintoism.

"It's difficult to rely solely on prison officers to maintain condemned inmates' peace of mind and help them reflect on their crimes, so we sometimes need the help of religious services," said Satoshi Tomiyama, of the Justice Ministry's Prison Service Division. "In this respect, chaplains play an important role."

Ashes received by chaplains

On the day a death-row convict is scheduled to be hanged, the chaplain accompanies the inmate to whom they had privately given religious teachings until shortly before the execution.

The detention house chooses a chaplain for those who have not received one-on-one teachings. They are asked to stand by and give words of comfort if requested to by the inmate.

After the execution, the chaplain conducts a simple funeral service at the mortuary in the detention house.

In a corner of the Zoshigaya Cemetery in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, stands an ossuary for former inmates of the Tokyo Detention House. It houses the ashes and bones of executed inmates that were refused by relatives.

"Even though he committed an unforgivable crime, I wish he had at least had a funeral service and been buried the same way as others," said a chaplain who conducted a funeral service for one inmate.

Some chaplains reportedly take with them the remains of the executed if their relatives are not willing to do so and bury them in graves at their temples and churches.

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