TOKYO, April 16 (UPI) -- Japan's prison population is aging and many prefer living a government-subsidized life behind bars, rather than getting by as penniless outcasts in a society that shuns former criminals.
The age of the prisoners was cited as a reason for the escalating cost of prison care that is adding to a government debt that stands at 240 percent of Japan's GDP. Bloomberg reported that in Japan nearly 1 in 5 inmates is over 60 and many suffer from health problems.
Ryotaro Sugi, an honorary special corrections officer, said some prisons increasingly resemble nursing homes.
"[Some inmates] groan at night from pain, throw their excrement or wander inside cells because they're suffering from dementia," Sugi said.
Drugs and medical equipment needed in prisons to care for elderly inmates have contributed to the doubling of healthcare expenses in the nine years through March 2015 and hospital admissions stood at 1,278 in 2012.
Japan's justice ministry stated criminal offenses committed by those age 60 and over quadrupled to 46,243 cases over two decades in 2014.
Many are serving jail terms for minor offenses, such as shoplifting. Under Japanese law, repeat offenders who shoplift can serve up to a five-year sentence, and a thief of a $8.30 bento lunch box could cost the country $134,160 for a maximum prison sentence.
Kyodo News previously reported that Japan's elderly who shoplift are likely to commit minor crimes to escape feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
In prison, criminals can find companionship, food and good care, said Koichi Hamai, a professor of criminology at Ryukoku University law school. But outside, they lack family and financial support.
Japan's prison population is relatively low, with a prison population rate of 54 out of 100,000 citizens, compared to 716 in the United States, according to a Pew Research study from 2013.