Tasty mushrooms grown behind bars seek hungry customers


"Chiba Prison: Many of the convicts at Chiba Prison are well practiced, and their skills extremely high. They produce high-quality goods, among which are chests of crafted paulownia wood, tables made out of a single board of wood, leather men's shoes, carrying bags and others." 

The above is one of the entries on the website engaged in direct sales of products made inside 61 prisons and reformatories around Japan, which as sold under the "Capic" brand. To cultivate self-respect and prevent recidivism, prison occupants are able to learn a useful trade that brings in income for them and for the facility. The system also encourages reform by providing them with a means of interacting with society on the outside. 

According to the website, the Capic current sales campaign will run until Dec 21. 

Yukan Fuji (Oct 4) looks items for sale from Chiba's Ichihara Prison, where some of the occupants are engaged in the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms. 

The destructive Typhoon No. 15 that struck Chiba last year caused extended power outages, and the prison operators were faced with a breakdown in air conditioning that forced them to discard much of their output. Then before they could completely recover, the novel coronavirus struck, causing a sharp reduction in mushroom sales channels. 

"Despite the difficult situation, the prisoners are continuing to take their work seriously," senior guard Koji Uede, the man in charge, tells the tabloid. "Please use this opportunity to taste a few," he invites proudly, adding, "When stir-fried with butter and soy sauce the taste is exquisite. They're popular items at exhibitions and always sell out quickly." 

Ichihara's all-male, low-security facility houses some 140 penitents serving an average of 2.5-year sentences for such crimes as negligence in causing a fatal traffic accident. 

A prerequisite for regular work activities in prisons is that they must not be seasonal, but can be conducted all year round. Ichihara began cultivating shiitake from 2012, after it learned that unlike logs typically used for cultivate of the mushrooms -- which are sensitive to weather changes -- it would be more practical to grow them utilizing the substrate method. 

Local customers have responded favorably, praising the mushrooms for their chewy thickness and affordable price of 500 yen a pouch. 

Encouraged by their sales success, the prisoners themselves are said to have become self-motivated toward their work and their attitude has also reportedly improved. 

But then came last year's typhoon, which in September 2019 caused some 640,000 households in Chiba to suffer power outages, and which wreaked widespread devastation. 

While the prison has its own power generator for security purposes, the shiitake growing facility was left without power for four straight days, resulting in the rotting of several thousand substrates, and leaving whatever mushrooms remaining in an unsellable condition. 

Then by the time the facility was restored, the novel coronavirus had struck, forcing shipping and sales activities to a halt. Sales last year declined by one-third, and the slack demand continues this year. 

"Since the prisoners have few opportunities to come into direct contact with society, at the moment they've  been eating a lot of their own output," says Uede. "But we'd like more people to buy them, which is also beneficial from the standpoint of their reform." 

The mushrooms can be ordered at the prison product exhibitions held around Japan or from the Japan Correctional Association site here.

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So many things come to mind.

I would like to see a catalog of the goods offered. Are the inmates pictured with the products they are responsible for?

Ya know, technically, a mushroom that is seeking a hungry customer, could in fact be a man-eating mushroom, which brings to mind a whole different set of images.

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I think it's interesting that they can do this, but it would not work in all countries.

In some I could think of concerns of what those disgruntled prisoners' might do to and with the food products.

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