Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Japanese prisons are struggling to cope with swelling numbers of the elderly, as the country’s aging population turns to the penal system to meet their basic needs.

The number of prisoners over the age of 60 has risen 7% over the past ten years, making up almost 20% of the entire prison population, compared with 6% in the United States and 11% in South Korea.

One prison, Reuters reported earlier this week, has converted a building to house elderly inmates, putting itself at the forefront of efforts to deal with the aging prisoner population.

An article published Friday delved deeper into the trend, finding that elderly women are committing minor offences, such as larceny, at a much higher rate than other demographic groups.

Japan’s prisons, Shiho Fukada writes for Bloomberg, are a “haven for elderly women.”

Ms F, 89, Fukada wrote, has stolen rice, strawberries and cold medicine to be sentenced to a year and a half. “I was living alone on welfare,” the inmate said. “I used to live with my daughter’s family and used all my savings taking care of an abusive and violent son-in-law.”

“The first time I shoplifted was about 13 years ago,” said another inmate, Ms N. “I wandered into a bookstore in town and stole a paperback novel. I was caught, taken to a police station, and questioned by the sweetest police officer. He was so kind. He listened to everything I wanted to say. I felt I was being heard for the first time in my life. In the end, he gently tapped on my shoulder and said, ‘I understand you were lonely, but don’t do this again.’”

The Financial Times took a look at the alarming trend several years ago, finding that the “mathematics of recidivism are gloomily compelling for the would-be convict.”

“Even with a frugal diet and dirt-cheap accommodation, a single Japanese retiree with minimal savings has living costs more than 25 per cent higher than the meagre basic state pension of Y780,000 ($6,900) a year, according to a study on the economics of elderly crime by Michael Newman of Tokyo-based research house Custom Products Research,” the FT reported.

Is this phenomena a preview of things to come for Japan’s neighbors?: