Photo/IllutrationInmates hone their haircutting skills on mannequin heads in a training room at Nara juvenile prison in Nara Prefecture. (Ryo Miyazaki)

NARA--One way prisons in Japan are trying to reduce the recidivism rate is by putting sharp objects in the hands of the inmates.

Young prisoners are being trained as barbers so that they will have practical skills and can make a living after they serve their sentences.

The program is part of a growing effort in Japan to help former convicts rejoin society.

Much like other countries, Japan is struggling to reduce the rate of repeat offenses by prison convicts and offenders sent to juvenile reformatories.

A quarter of the 400 inmates at the Nara juvenile prison are currently taking vocational training courses in 13 fields, including architecture, nursing care and hairdressing.

At the end of May, six inmates were practicing their cutting skills in silence in a training room that resembled an old-style barber shop. Correction officers in uniform kept a close eye on the trainees’ every move.

The inmates will be eligible to take the examination for a national hairdressing certificate upon completion of the two-year course.

In fiscal 2015, all five trainees in the course passed the exam.

The prison has also run an actual barber shop, called “Wakakusa Riyoshitsu” (Little men’s barber), for the past 60 years to allow the trainees to work on real people and learn customer services skills on almost every weekday.

They say this training is one of the most valuable experiences on their road to rehabilitation.

A haircut costs 1,030 yen ($9.70), a buzz cut runs 630 yen and shave is 520 yen. The shop receives about 10 customers, mostly neighbors, a day.

“Everybody my age is already working,” said a 24-year-old inmate who has been honing his haircutting skills. “I must have fallen way behind them in terms of the amount of general knowledge and business language they have learned at their jobs.”

He is not allowed to tell customers his name or why he ended up here. He says he tries to hold good conversations with the customers by chatting about current events.

“I feel flattered when the customers tell me, ‘the shampooing was good,’” he said, shyly.

According to the Justice Ministry’s white paper on crime, the number of repeat criminal offenders, excluding those charged for killing and injuring people in traffic accidents, has been rising even though the total number of criminal cases is decreasing.

In 2014, 47.1 percent of all suspects had been arrested before.

Another survey by the Justice Ministry showed a recidivism rate of 29.8 percent among former inmates who were unemployed at the end of their probation periods. That was four times higher than the rate for those who found employment.

“There is a vicious circle of reoffending when the unemployed ex-inmates are reduced to poverty,” said a ministry official in charge of prison job training.

The Justice Ministry has asked businesses that are willing to employ former inmates and are registered with probation offices around Japan what kind of skills they seek.

In response to the survey results, the ministry has enhanced the curriculum to encourage inmates to obtain licenses for heavy machinery for construction work and certificates for computer-based skills.

Furthermore, the ministry in July 2015 sent out an official notification to all 69 prisons in Japan to hold “open days” to spread awareness among the public about the importance of the job training programs.

Since the notification, all prisons have held open days. Most were for supporting businesses, but some were open to the general public.

“Prisons cannot keep in touch with ex-inmates once they leave, and they cannot provide employment support,” the Justice Ministry official said. “Support from businesses and society is essential. We hope the public learns more about prisons and deepens their understanding.”