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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan

One American called the Japanese prison “the Fuchu hellhole.”

U.S. citizen Terrance Sheard was sentenced to the Tokyo prison after being caught with drugs at Narita International Airport.

Comparing Fuchu to a “WWII Nazi prison camp,” he described a life of “slave labor,” where he worked long hours in spaces with no heat or air conditioning while being fed barely enough fish and soup to stay alive. He submitted his story to Foreign Prisoners Support Service after transferring to a federal prison in the United States.

Just a few hours from Fuchu, Americans under another set of rules do time at Yokosuka Prison in Kurihama. But their lifestyle is much different, said House of Representative member and Social Democratic Party deputy leader Kantoku Teruya.

In Yokosuka Prison, status of forces agreement personnel — currently 17 U.S. servicemembers — shower daily while the rest of the prisoners bathe twice weekly, he said.

The military prisoners have heaters in their cells while the rest of the population is restricted from huddling around community hallway heaters. And there’s no fish-and-rice diet for Americans — the military provides one ton of food a year for each prisoner, including steaks, fruits, cake, coffee and milk, he said.

“There was A-1 sauce on the [cafeteria] table,” Teruya said of his July visit to Yokosuka prison. “These prisoners are treated so differently, as if the purpose is to return them to the military — not for rehabilitation.”

The differences are rooted in a 1953 Japan-U.S. Joint Committee Agreement on criminal action, said Koichi Sekizawa, a legal adviser in the staff judge advocate’s office at Yokosuka Naval Base. The agreement says that if U.S. military personnel are detained, “appropriate consideration should be paid to differences in cultural customs.”

That translates into food, materials and regular visits by base personnel, Sekizawa said. Americans also get western beds and toilets, though their cell size is the same as the others.

“American prisoners wear the same uniforms and serve their forced labor with the Japanese, but they live in a separate area and have their own recreation room with a television and couch,” Sekizawa said. “We provide food and materials to them because American people are not used to the Japanese diet.”

Convicted servicemembers from all U.S. military branches are incarcerated in Yokosuka Prison. There are 17 U.S. servicemembers — six sailors, six Marines, four airmen and one soldier — among the prison’s 272 inmates, according to a Mainichi newspaper report.

The population usually hovers between 15 and 20 servicemembers, Sekizawa said.

But discrepancies may lessen as Japan makes general improvement to prison life and works toward getting rid of the special food program for American servicemembers, said a justice ministry official.

Improvements have been made for general population at Yokosuka prison, as heating stoves were placed in the hallways, Japanese prisoners are moving into vacated SOFA cells and showers are being allowed certain days of the week, said Kenichi Matsumura of the ministry’s corrections bureau.

For the Okinawa-based Teruya, who got involved in the issue after learning the three U.S. servicemembers convicted of raping a local 12-year-old were housed in the prison, the special treatment is an affront to the victims’ families.

“There are just too many differences between how they are treated,” Teruya said. “Anyone [who heard about it] will be surprised.”

This doesn’t mean treating SOFA personnel badly — just equally, Teruya said.

“Other foreign nationals are treated the same as the Japanese prisoners,” Teruya said. “[American servicemembers] should not be treated differently.”

But the issue has been on the table for years without resolution. Japan’s Ministry of Justice promised to make changes after a Japanese Communist Party upper house member brought it up in 1997.

In 2002, then-justice minister Mayumi Moriyama said the ministry asked the United States to gradually reduce the amount of food it delivered while eventually abolishing the practice.

But while the countries are always talking, no changes have been made, Sekizawa said.

It’s important to remember that while the servicemembers may get some extras, they are still living in a penal system very different from that in the United States, he said. Moreover, the United States is maintaining the cost of its own military members as they remain in the service until they are released and discharged, he said.

“We incur the costs and the food expense,” Sekizawa said.

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