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Sunday, Nov. 20, 2005
FROM TOKYO TO TIME IN A U.S. JAIL
Busted for drugs in the name of love
By MASAMI ITO
Tall, blond and blue-eyed, Alex was Prince Charming to Tomomi Arimura. In her eyes, he was perfect -- good-looking, attentive and gentlemanly. Through expensive and thoughtful gifts, affection and words of love, Alex completely stole her heart.
Alex's most memorable present to Arimura, though, arrived out of the blue at her door in New York City early on the morning of Nov. 1, 2001. Delivered by FBI agents, it was a warrant for her arrest.
There and then, Arimura was arrested on suspicion of being involved in Alex's drug business. For the first time in her life, she felt ice-cold handcuffs on her wrists.
Alex (a pseudonym) was a Russian immigrant who left the former Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. As a member of the Russian mafia, New York-based Alex had been in charge of a drug-dealing organization spanning the U.S. East Coast. From marijuana and cocaine to heroin and ecstasy, you name it, he shifted it in quantity.
Arimura (a pseudonym) admits that she found out what Alex was all about a few months into their relationship.
"I thought he was kidding," she said in an interview with The Japan Times. "It just didn't sink in at first. . . . But when I found out he was involved in dealing drugs, I have to admit, I had conflicting emotions. Every day, I debated whether or not I should continue the relationship."
Because of his "job," Alex did not have a credit card. So to FedEx a package to a friend, he would sometimes borrow Arimura's. She said he swore that the parcels were not drugs, and that he would never get her involved.
Unfortunately, Alex lied. The investigators told Arimura that the parcels he had sent using her credit card, and others he had asked her to send, were packed with drugs. Thus she was arrested for her involvement in interstate drug trafficking.
"I never dreamed that I would be arrested, because I was never involved," Arimura said.
But nothing -- not the arrest, nor her fear for her future -- was more painful to her than Alex's betrayal. As it turned out, he had not only lied about the drugs, but he had also never revealed that he had a wife and two children -- and another lover who was pregnant with his child. Those facts were slapped into Arimura's face during her first few hours of interrogation.
And with all that, Arimura's dream world was shattered.
In the beginning, Arimura had been intent on fighting all the way to prove her innocence, she said. But her lawyer discouraged her, saying there was very little chance of her succeeding. As a result, she decided to plead guilty and ask for a lighter sentence without plea bargaining.
"In the end, I had to accept the responsibility that I was knowingly dating a member of the mafia who was dealing drugs," Arimura said.
"I didn't plea bargain for various reasons, including the fact that [the charge] was aimed not just against Alex, it was against everyone who was caught. Plus, there were people who did plea bargain and became targets of revenge."
Arimura was sentenced to two years in prison, and she began to serve her sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. In her book "Prison Girl," published in August by Poplar Publishing, the 28-year-old former inmate detailed her real, yet surreal, experience behind bars in the United States.
Her first day began with a nude body search, during which she was told to squat down and cough once -- to make sure she did not have any drugs hidden inside her body.
During her two years inside, Arimura never met another prisoner from Japan, and most of her fellow inmates were Latinos or African-Americans, she said.
For a long time, her cellmate was a friendly Mexican serving 10 years for dealing drugs, while the leader of the Asian inmates was a Chinese mafia member whose relatives were being threatened because she had plea bargained.
As well, she described a Puerto Rican serving 28 years for being involved in 35 gang-related killings, and an Italian woman who had mailed anthrax to a classmate of her son who had been bullying him.
"But everyone was very nice, so it was hard to imagine they had committed those crimes," Arimura said.
She said that her prison had no educational program for inmates to reflect on and repent their crimes, so it was essentially left up to each individual how they wanted to deal with their past.
"Most didn't reflect back on the crimes they committed," Arimura said. "Many inmates go back and forth [between prison and the outside world] and they don't see the point in reflection. And some even prefer being locked up."
Like in any prison, though, "companionship" is a necessity for most long-term inmates. Arimura said that almost everyone serving two years or more had a lesbian partner regardless of their sexuality outside in the "real world."
"Each couple had a woman role and a man role," Arimura said. "More often than not, those who played the woman role were heterosexual and those who played the man were lesbians outside the prison, too. . . . I sort of felt sorry for the true lesbians, because the non-lesbians usually forget about their partners once they leave prison."
Although Arimura never ended up having a lesbian partner, she said that there were people who were attracted to her. "Once, a girl, who was beautiful yet looked like a man from every angle, came up to me and told me that she had never seen such a beautiful Asian before," Arimura said with a smile.
Fights were often triggered by these love affairs, just like any other place in the world, Arimura said -- usually over someone accusing someone else of trying to steal their partner. But other causes, she said, included battles over TV channels or whose turn it was to do the laundry.
Avoiding fights was one key lesson that Arimura made sure to learn, she said, because usually -- no matter who started the fight -- both people would end up in solitary confinement. And what most inmates fear in addition is any increase in their sentence due to the loss of parole time for good behavior.
Finally, in November 2004, Arimura was released and deported back to Japan. Because of her crime, she has been banned from the U.S. for the rest of her life. Now, hiding her "experience" from most people, she is a regular office worker in Tokyo.
"Looking back, I gained mental strength because you have to be tough to survive prison," Arimura said with a smile. "If I had chance, I would go back to New York. Yes, it's a bit scary after what happened, but that is part of the excitement of that city."