Photo/IllutrationThe Yushinkan martial arts training room in Toyama Prison can be used as an evacuation center during disasters. (Tomoki Tajima)

TOYAMA--Residents who flee from flooding here could end up in the slammer.

Under an agreement reached between Toyama Prison and a neighboring community, the penal facility will be used to shelter people during natural disasters.

The prison sits on a narrow delta sandwiched between the Jinzugawa and Kumanogawa rivers. The land is vulnerable to flooding, and some parts of the district could be under up to 2 meters should the water breach the banks of the rivers.

The prison last autumn came up with the idea to turn its martial arts training room for prison guards into a possible evacuation center.

Discussions with a residents’ association on the delta went smoothly, and an agreement was concluded on March 30.

“We were grateful that the prison came forward first,” Kiyokazu Sakata, 72, chair of the association, said.

The training room, called Yushinkan, is 402 square meters and is separated from the prison ward by a wall. Inmates and the evacuees would not see each other.

One hitch was that there was no female toilet in the building, so construction work to build a restroom for females started in June.

In April 2016, when a series of strong earthquakes shook Kumamoto Prefecture, about 250 people at one time took shelter at Kumamoto Prison.

Kumamoto Prison was not the first to serve as an evacuation shelter, but the disaster fueled momentum for such measures.

The Justice Ministry has encouraged prisons and detention houses around the nation to hold discussions with neighboring communities.

By the end of March, 39 of all 76 such facilities had agreed to take in civilians at times of emergency.

Hideya Mochizuki, 57, head of Toyama Prison, said he always felt a distance between penal institutions and local residents.

When he was working at the Tokyo Detention House in the capital’s Katsushika Ward, he said he tried to “reduce the distance” by holding disaster drills and other events with the prison’s neighbors.

“It would be great if we can deepen our ties with local people through the agreement (to shelter evacuees),” Mochizuki said.