Super-jail project demands a rethink

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 June, 2004, 12:00am

The plan to build a super-jail capable of accommodating more than 7,000 inmates looks, at first glance, like a tidy and convenient way to solve the long-standing problem of overcrowding in our prisons. It involves knocking down eight of our ageing, congested penal institutions and moving all the prisoners to a state-of-the-art complex on a small island in the South China Sea.

The reality, however, is not so simple. From the moment the project was unveiled in 2000, it has been controversial - and with good reason. The creation of a prison city in the sea gives rise to a number of concerns.

This, however, has not stopped the government pushing ahead with the $12 billion project. The site has been chosen and, this week, the first stage of a feasibility study was completed. The super-jail is getting closer to becoming a reality.

There is little doubt that action of some kind is needed to improve conditions in our prisons which, according to the Security Bureau, now house more than 13,000 inmates and operate at 15 per cent over capacity. But whether the building of a super-jail is the best way to go about it remains doubtful, despite considerable government efforts to prove otherwise.

And even if the development of this particular new town is the right way to go, there is a big question mark hanging over the choice of location. The government has picked the scenic island of Hei Ling Chau, which is a proposed conservation area and regarded as ecologically important.

The plan has already been scaled down, in response to concerns raised by lawmakers. The original idea was to house all of our city's prisoners - currently held in 24 institutions - in the same place. It seems to have been inspired by Singapore's plans to build a new Changi prison complex by 2008.

Now, the government's proposal is more modest, limited to 7,220 inmates. But concerns remain that holding so many prisoners in such close quarters will create the potential for a security disaster. A super-jail could become the scene of a super-riot. Dividing the prison population into mini-jails within the complex will help reduce - but not eliminate - the risk.

Then there is the question of rehabilitation. The government argues the extra space available at the new site will allow for extra facilities for prisoners. Some will, for example, be able to do a spot of gardening. But the prison complex will cater for many different types of inmate - men, women and young offenders. Long-term prisoners will be there, as will those who have committed minor crimes.

The stigma attached to having been held in such an institution is likely to make rehabilitation more difficult. And the remote location will not help schemes intended to ease inmates back into the community.

The choice of Hei Ling Chau is also problematic. The government has gone to some lengths to meet the concerns of green groups. But this tends to support the argument that the proposals are environmentally unsound. An attempt has been made to leave most of the island undisturbed. But this is to be achieved through extensive reclamation. The 80-hectare site will be more than four times the area being reclaimed in Central.

And then there is the bridge. This will stretch for 2.2km from the coast of South Lantau to the prison and is expected to be used by about 700 vehicles a day. It will blight a relatively unspoilt part of Hong Kong, a favourite destination for day-trippers and tourists. The suggestion that the bridge will be painted in subtle colours is unlikely to make much difference.

There is still time for the plan to be put on hold so that alternatives can be considered afresh. The use of a less-sensitive location, the building of smaller institutions, and arranging for mainland prisoners to serve their sentences across the border, are all options requiring further attention. The super-jail is not the ideal solution it may seem.