Life behind bars

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2002, 12:00am

HONG KONG'S most gruesome museum opened in Stanley last week. The Correctional Services Museum is not for the faint-hearted. Be prepared for headless bodies and barbaric instruments of punishment. You can even peer through the bars of a prison cell.

The two-storey museum is a 10-minute walk from Stanley market and housed in the Correctional Services Department(CSD)'s former married officers' quarters. The CSD parade ground is next door, but the sound of the trainees going through their drills fades as you enter the museum. You are going back in time to a far more lawless Hong Kong.

These were the days when pirates regularly attacked ships, killing the crew and taking the cargo. Desperate times demanded desperate measures and the early Hong Kong courts were tough on hardened criminals - they were put to death. If a person was suspected of being a pirate, they were sent into Chinese territory where they were certain to be executed.

In the early days, those convicted of murder or piracy were sentenced to death and hung outside Victoria Prison on Hollywood Road. A chilling thought to consider next time you walk past Central Police Station. Later the executions were carried out at Stanley Prison, each one meticulously logged in a large leather-bound ledger. The museum has several such journals on display, recording the first hanging on April 1, 1946 and the last on November 16, 1966.

If you have a macabre interest in hangings, the museum will surely satisfy your curiosity. It has created a mock gallows. As you stare in awe at the hangman's noose firmly secured to a thick wooden beam, a voiceover details a condemned man's final hour.

Those whose crimes were not severe enough to warrant the death sentence faced jail terms in prisons that were much more brutal than today's. Victoria Prison, built in 1841, was the first. An underground tunnel was built to transfer prisoners from the police station to the prison. It soon became overcrowded and conditions were dire.

Punishment was serious business in those days and in addition to floggings, criminals were made to spend hours on a treadmill. Ironically, the treadmill looks like a primitive version of the ones found in today's gyms.

The museum also has a section devoted to the Vietnamese boat people. It explains why the refugees sought shelter in Hong Kong and details the camps that were created to house them. The refugee problem turned into a crisis in the mid-1990s and the museum has pictures of the riots and the knives and helmets that the refugees made from bits of plastic and metal.

The Prison Department was renamed the Correctional Services Department in 1982. The name change was intended to reflect the more modern approach to prisoner reform. Criminals are no longer beaten and starved for their sins, instead there are now specialised institutions to cater for prisoners' needs, from drug rehabilitation centres to psychiatric prisons.

The museum's film on the history of prisons ends with uplifting, jubilant music. The camera pans across crystal blue seas and green countryside as the commentator says: 'Today's prisons are now in the most scenic spots of Hong Kong. They boast the most modern resources ...' The piece sounds like the promotion of a luxury housing complex - a far cry from floggings and the treadmill.

Hong Kong Correctional Services Museum, 45, Tung Tau Wan Road, Stanley. Tel: 2147 3199. Opening hours: 10am-5pm. Closed Mondays.