Prisons and problems

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2000, 12:00am

Whoever had the idea of selling off Hong Kong's 24 jails and housing its 12,000 prisoners under one roof will certainly find friends among the SAR's developers if the plan comes to fruition; and for an economy plagued by a shrinking tax base, the prospect is inspired.

Life might be harsh behind bars, but inside, looking out, some views are among the best in the SAR. When the prisons were built, the idea was to isolate criminals from the rest of society, so most prisons were sited in sequestered spots, among mountains and overlooking the sea.

Eventually, as the population increased, and suburbs extended into agricultural areas, many jails became less isolated. Today, some have exclusive residential developments within view. How much more valuable would those sites be if the jails were emptied and the land sold off for high-priced housing? The Correctional Services Department estimates that the value of nine of the sites in prime locations could top $38 billion.

But cost should not be the only consideration when something as crucial as prison policy is under review. Priority goes to security issues, and the feasibility of managing a population the size of a small town, herded together in a single complex. Even well-run prisons have problems dealing with the tension that builds up among inmates deprived of their freedom and forced to live close to strangers, very often in overcrowded cells.

Riots have frequently broken out in local jails over real or imagined grievances. Incidents of that nature are almost inevitable in institutions containing people of different ethnic groups and backgrounds, but they are more easily containable in small prisons.

A super jail, in which illegal immigrants, juvenile delinquents and suspects on remand are housed with murderers and triad bosses, could see a new set of crises. How would riots in one unit be prevented from spreading throughout the prison? And, most important, how would such a prison cater to the rehabilitation needs of such a diverse group of prisoners?

Regardless of economies of scale, or profits accrued by selling off the present sites, there needs to be convincing answers to these questions before the idea of a super jail is acceptable. The cost of spending $5 billion on five new jails is daunting; but perhaps less daunting than the creation of a city behind bars, where one anti-social act might infect the entire community.