It’s right out of an episode of Gintama – Sakata Gintoki meets the vicious Shachi, a criminal convicted of murder and trafficking. In Episode 110, Shachi is also an unlikely mangaka who sent a submission to Shounen Jump while in jail, which would get serialized.
While not as radical as Gintama, Japan’s Mine Rehabilitation Program Center in the Yamaguchi Prefecture allows prisoners to draw manga while they are serving their sentences. The program began in 2014 with the help of mangaka Ryo Sonoba.
Sonoba accompanied an acquaintance to the private prison one summer, which houses inmates sentenced to labor. In an interview with The Asashi Shimbun, Sonoba recalled being impressed by the artistic skills of some of the inmates. He volunteered to serve as an instructor for an art program, which gives inmates a chance to work on a computer and stylus tablets.
In 2015, Sonoba was commissioned to work on a manga series which led to a radical proposition – have the inmates work as his assistants. After receiving permission, Sonoba had the inmates draw buildings, cars, cityscapes, and other background art for this project. Sonoba’s plan was deemed a success and has led to other mangaka turning towards the inmates for background art.
In April 2017, Sonoba opened a website selling prints of their background work. Prices are between 300 yen ($2.60) to 600 yen ($5.32). Sonoba recalls that the inmates smile when they see their art in manga, even if they don’t get to meet the mangaka.
The art sold all seems to be highly detailed with excellent perspective work. There’s no listing of manga the inmates’ background art is featured within. But it’s easy to see how series like Tenkyuu Shinpan or other manga with large cityscapes could benefit from this program.
The goal of the inmate manga program is not just to foster an inmate’s art skills, but to give them an experience that can be used after their sentences have been served. Sonoba is unaware of the inmates’ names, charges, or ages. Sometimes, an inmate may suddenly disappear because their sentence is up or they got into trouble.
Still, Sonoba claims he forms a connection with them through his mentoring and hopes that the inmates can feel a sense of accomplishment once they re-enter society.