‘A helplessness that a mother can’t imagine’
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Teresa Boyd says there are two things that connect her to her son, who is doing time in a Japanese prison cell: his letters and the U.S. Marine Corps.
So when Boyd gets a letter from her son, Lance Cpl. Joshua Major, about how it took five days to get treatment for his fractured thumb at Yokosuka Prison, she says she wanted the Corps to act.
But an investigation by the Marine’s prison liaison brought her no comfort, she says, when a report said no mistreatment occurred.
She says she felt like she was being characterized as an “overprotective” mother and that the case got cursory treatment because the military doesn’t want to ruffle host-nation feathers.
“It’s a helplessness that a mother can’t imagine,” Boyd says. “I hate how he sat and suffered. I know his injury wasn’t life-threatening, but he was still hurting.”
Other letters from Major told of how he spent a week in solitary confinement for not putting onions in the prison’s omelets and his fears that any complaining would decrease his chance for parole.
Boyd — who is an attorney and a registered nurse — initiated a letter, phone and e-mail campaign last month to get help for her son. She’s also pushing for more military support of prisoners’ families who are worrying thousands of miles away, she says.
“The military is my only official link to my son. I have no contact whatsoever with the prison officials,” Boyd wrote in a recent e-mail to Stars and Stripes. “We were promised liaisons. It’s their duty to take care of them.”
She said she hasn’t visited him herself because her son doesn’t want her to see him in prison.
Representatives from the Marine Corps at Combined Arms Training Center Camp Fuji visit the prison monthly to ensure incarcerated Marines are being treated properly and fairly, says Maj. William Rice.
“During the prison visits, we talk with each Marine to ensure their personal well-being, both mentally and physically,” he said. “Secondly, we work directly with the prison warden and his staff to ensure that each Marine’s sentence is being executed in accordance with the status of forces agreement.”
The end goal is to help the Marine “successfully navigate life in a Japanese prison,” Rice says.
Boyd’s letters prompted an immediate investigation into the case, which found Major was not mistreated and was handled in accordance with SOFA, Rice says. They sent Boyd a report with their findings and consider the matter closed, he added.
Japanese prison rules are strict and language barriers can be frustrating for prisoners and guards alike, says Marine liaison Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Chupka, explaining that part of his job is helping the prisoners’ families with their misperceptions of the system.
SOFA prisoners live at a different standard than their Japanese peers, with more food, Western toilets, personal heaters and English reading materials, he says.
“I explain to them (families) that Japanese prisons are not as bad as they think and the prisoners are not beaten or mistreated,” Chupka says. “But it’s not easy, and I tell them that their son or daughters aren’t always going to write them when they’re happy.”
But he says it’s up to the family members to contact him and they do so about half or three-quarters of the time. He says he answers the family’s questions as best he can — the most common being, “Why doesn’t So-and-So answer our letters?”
Chupka also helps the inmates with administrative procedures — often divorce — and does little favors when he can, like sending Major’s child some coloring books, he says.
Major, assigned to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, was sentenced to 4½ years of forced labor in prison for assault and conspiracy to commit robbery in 2005. He was accused of beating a 20-year-old Okinawan man and trying to steal his wallet with a fellow Marine.
Major initially received a suspended sentence, but prosecutors appealed and called the lack of jail time “unacceptably light.”
But while her son may have done a “dishonorable thing one night,” he is not a dishonorable man and deserves better treatment, Boyd says.
And so do the families of inmates, she says.
“There are no support groups for families,” Boyd said. “Indeed, I have no idea how to contact other families to form my own support group.”