Fortune smiles on business behind bars

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 August, 1998, 12:00am

It's time for the next instalment in Lai See 's occasional series, Paragons of Positivity , where we confound doom merchants by highlighting businesses that are booming (we kid you not) in sunny Hong Kong.

Today, we turn to the somewhat enclosed world of Hong Kong jails.

You may have thought that, when it came to contributions to the broader economy, prison politics would have little broad impact - but you couldn't be wider of the mark.

Hong Kong's prisoners, it turns out, are as industrious and productive in their output as the city's free citizens - and from the look of some evidence we've gathered, a damn sight more profitable.

So much so, that in last year's annual report of the Commissioner for Correctional Services - released just a week or two back - their work was classified under a corporate title.

Yes, we are not merely dealing with a collection of jailbirds, but a well-oiled machine with an impressive title: Correctional Services Industries (CSI), a lean corporate-style machine with low salary costs and a workforce of 9,800 prisoners and inmates.

The reason for the establishment of CSI is given as follows: 'Prisoners serving sentence are required to perform work, which keeps them purposefully occupied and reduces the risk of unrest resulting from boredom and lack of constructive activity.' Allowing prisoners to cell their services has become big business, it seems.

Last year, the commercial value of goods and services provided by our humble prison corporation was locked in at $450 million - up more than 4 per cent from $431 million in the previous year.

In fact, the chapter reviewing the performance of CSI reads more like a prospectus for a company about to float on the stock exchange than the annual review of the work of prisoners.

The keys to the jailbirds' take-off into the money-making stratosphere have been the unfashionable - but clearly profitable - worlds of garment production and laundry services.

CSI manufactures an impressive 300,000 uniforms annually for staff in the local disciplined services - such as police and immigration officers.

It also washes the dirty linen of Hong Kong's public hospitals.

About 1.33 million kilograms worth of hospital clothing and sheets churn through the washing machines of our prisons every month .

But CSI's biggest growth industry last year seems to have been printing. The report notes that, with many government departments changing logos to replace colonial symbols, printing workshops in two prisons faced unprecedented demand.

A total of 1.4 million name cards were issued by men and women behind bars.

And just before you start to think CSI is about to rest on its profitable laurels, expansion is in the air.

Efforts have gone into overdrive to develop new lines to allow our prison product peddlers to meet 'the changing requirements of customers'.

Last year, the new product drive commenced in earnest, when CSI started producing 60-centimetre fibreglass symbols of the SAR, complete with bauhinia flowers.

Knitted scarves and caps for the needy, new-style uniforms and concrete paving blocks are other new products on the CSI menu.

There is also a section headed: 'Expansion in Production Capability'.

A reference to the fact the prison workforce has been boosted by the new presence of a legislator by the name of Chim Pui-chung? No, nothing as exciting as that. It alludes to CSI's opening of new carpentry and metal workshops at various correctional institutions.

There's even a section on quality assurance. If there are any prison slackers working, the Correctional Services Department is intent on making sure they are no bar to decent products coming off the CSI production line.

Quality inspections are carried out regularly, and independent surveyors are sometimes called in to ensure CSI's products are well-finished.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the report's revelations on what could be seen as the prisoner's equivalent of an executive remuneration plan.

That's right, inmates are given more than just porridge as an incentive for performing 'useful work'.

The 'golden handcuff' remuneration plan for prisoners is slightly different from that of your average Central or Wan Chai executive.

The better inmates work, the more money they receive - enabling them to buy 'from a list of approved snack and toiletry items' through regular canteen purchases.

There are even annual salary reviews, in part designed to ensure what inmates can buy is unaffected by price rises in the canteen.

Ah yes - even behind bars, there's no escape from the ravages of inflation.