Act with conviction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 1996, 12:00am

Overcrowding in Hong Kong's prisons is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it has for several years been a concern of such magnitude that the Governor had to pledge swift action to bring conditions down to manageable levels.

In October 1994, Mr Patten promised to reduce overcrowding to eight per cent in four years. This target now seems unlikely to be met. At present, the prison population is still 23 per cent higher than the numbers which the institutions were built to house. The current prison building programme will not meet the extra demand on the system. If reports from within the prison service are to be believed, what is new is the intensity of inmates' rage. Prisoners who were formerly quiescent are demanding rights which they believe are enjoyed by their counterparts in more modern penal systems in the West. Their discontent is stoked by overcrowding, poor conditions and the methods that overstretched warders employ to keep order.

Whatever the wider motives behind the recent attacks on Stanley Prison and the Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre, the perceived over-use of injected tranquillising drugs - particularly at Siu Lam - has been pinpointed as a source of discontent.

Calls by legislators for an investigation into prison drug use, while clearly a sensible first step, may well be addressing a single symptom instead of the disease. New prison accommodation is being built. But officers of the Correctional Services Department (CSD) believe an equally urgent task is to boost prison staffing. Past levels have been based on the certified capacity of prisons, instead of on the actual population. Warders understandably feel they are overstretched.

Inevitably, there will be a certain amount of self-interest and empire-building underlying their demand for 700 extra staff. Some trimming of that target is to be expected. But the Government's response so far has been inadequate. Only 10 per cent of the CSD's figure has been agreed to. That response hardly inspires confidence in official determination to prevent tension in the prisons from escalating.

At a time of growing resentment among staff and inmates alike, the Government owes it to the staff, the prisoners and the public at large to say what concrete measures it intends to adopt to bring the mood in the prisons back under control. The warning signs of trouble are already visible. It should not take an outbreak of serious violence for the Government to act more decisively.