Does Hong Kong still need a superjail?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 12:00am

As economic circumstances change, public priorities change, and public works projects can become lightning rods for controversy. For post-dotcom-boom Seattle, the project is a central public library built to a futuristic design developed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. For Hong Kong, it is the proposed 'superjail' that the Security Bureau wants to build on Hei Ling Chau island off Lantau.

While Seattle's new library is already under construction, Hong Kong has the chance to sit back and decide whether this prison is something that it really wants. When the prison was first proposed in late 2000, fiscal budget deficits were not a consideration. A $28 billion complex to house 15,000 inmates was mooted. The main concern from members of the Legislative Council's security panel then had more to do with the manageability of such a large prison, rather than issues such as cost or even environmental impact.

Flash forward nearly three years later. Hong Kong is mired in economic gloom, brought on by the bursting of its property bubble, slowing global trade and regional competition - and made worse by Sars, which has brought a World Health Organisation travel advisory that is keeping business and leisure visitors from the city. Urban dwellers are flocking to the countryside on weekends and there is talk of using eco-tourism to revive our travel industry.

The project has been scaled back to a $12 billion complex housing 7,220 inmates, but the prison becomes more controversial by the day, with strong opposition now coming from green groups and residents who live near Hei Ling Chau. Considering this opposition, and considering that Legco has approved funds for a feasibility study, now would be a good time for the government to pause and take stock of the costs and benefits of this project.

The new prison is meant to replace eight of 24 now in use. The government had previously estimated that billions could be gained from selling the sites now occupied by those eight prisons. We need a new assessment, based upon a current, and realistic, view of what those lands are worth today and what they will be worth when the government puts them on the market.

After the project scope was halved because of security concerns, and factoring in the planned closures, the new prison will add 2,600 new places to the overall system. The consultants who conduct the feasibility study and the government itself will need to consider whether this is the best possible use of $12 billion in public money at the moment.

The original Security Bureau plan suggested cost savings from centralised management and economies of scale, but a full study on potential cost savings, has yet to be done. The public and Legco would probably not be convinced of this until they see more details.

Recent vocal opposition to the project has come from green groups and residents of neighbouring areas, including Peng Chau, Discovery Bay and villages on the southern side of Lantau. Granted that some measure of 'not in my backyard' opposition will always dog such proposals, due consideration has to be given to the concerns raised about rare species in the area and about how the prison may change, for the worse, the tourist appeal, or even the real estate values, of the adjacent lands.

Existing prison facilities that are not appropriate for housing inmates were another factor cited in the early proposals, and are a valid concern. But a feasibility study should also look into alternatives such as renovation of some of these. In the end, there is no rush here. Construction is scheduled to start in 2006 and run for six years. The first part of the feasibility study, which will include an environmental impact assessment and public consultation, is expected to take about eight months. We encourage the government and the public to use this time to engage in an open and honest debate about what would be best for Hong Kong.