Time to change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 12:00am

Think of world-class facilities and infrastructure and you envision Chek Lap Kok with an annual passenger capacity of 45 million people; the 2.2-kilometre Tsing Ma Bridge, the world's longest-span suspension bridge; even the world's fifth Disney theme park, which will open here next year.

What you probably didn't imagine was the government's plan for another world-class facility - a 'super jail' capable of accommodating more than 7,000 inmates on the island of Hei Ling Chau. Opposition to the proposal has been broad - from civil-rights groups to residents with more vested interests.

The proposal's critics are saying that instead of spending $12 billion on building a new jail, the government should treat the issue of law and order in a more constructive manner, by improving its rehabilitation programme to lower the re-offending rate - which stands at about 50 per cent - and strengthening crime prevention to control the number of new offenders.

The government explains the rationale behind the plan with convincing numbers. The total inmate population in Hong Kong is now 13,598 - 18 per cent in excess of capacity.

The Correctional Services Department (CSD) also gave the example of Tai Lam Centre for Women, which has exceeded its capacity (278) by a staggering 158 per cent, to house 719 inmates.

Others disagree. 'The government is completely illogical ...We believe that the number of offenders would drastically decrease if the government were willing to pay out one- 10th of that $12-billion price tag and improve its rehabilitation services,' said Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation. Since 2001, the society has launched an after-care programme including job-seeking, temporary financial assistance and housing facilities to help about 500 former inmates.

'The department should also improve its rehabilitation programmes, and teach more practical vocational skills to help these people reintegrate into society instead of keeping them in a super jail,' the director said. 'It is expensive to keep people in jail, costing taxpayers about $14,000 per inmate per month.'

The CSD admitted that its after-care programmes were mainly provided to young inmates under 21 or those serving prison terms of two years or longer. According to the department, only 2,538 inmates - one-quarter of a total of 9,857 local Chinese inmates released last year - were under the after-care programme. Of 9,225 inmates released from jail in 2002, 2,576 (or 27.9 per cent) were on the programme.

The average prison term is 7.1 months, so many inmates do not qualify for aftercare.

'Also, instead of providing them with useful training in prison, the department deploys the inmates to work at outdated jobs such as book-binding and laundry. This work will not help them find jobs and reintegrate into society after their release,' Mr Ho said.

The director warned of 'a danger to the city if all the inmates are gathered in one super jail'.

He said it would be more practical for the government to establish a mechanism for sending non-local residents to their homelands, and estimated about 30 per cent of Hong Kong's inmates were mainlanders. The latest official figures showed that the number of mainland visitors arrested rose by 9.1 per cent from 853 in the first five months of last year to 931 over the same period this year.

Alan Crawley, treasurer of the Prisoners' Friends' Association, said the government's rehabilitation programme was not effective. 'The CSD is supposed to rehabilitate those people, but they keep teaching prisoners to do book-binding,' he said.

'I wonder how many jobs there are in Hong Kong for book-binders? There are some computers in the prison - you can not say there are no computers - but inmates rarely get a chance to learn computer skills. They complain there are too many queues.

'I wrote to the CSD telling them that I can give them any number of second-hand computers. You cannot get a decent job unless you know how to use a computer.

'So what are you doing to do, you have changed the name from Prisons Department to the Correctional Services Department and that is supposed to emphasise the rehabilitation of the prisoners. But you don't teach them how to use the computer, so how can they find a job?

'Only a few inmates are having the privilege of learning computer skills. They teach illegal immigrants how to make shirts and then send them back to the mainland. One guy came in the other day, and the officer said: 'this is your second time. This time we will teach you how to make trousers.'

'The Correctional Services Department is out of touch. People with criminal records are not easy to find a job for in the first place, plus they are not trained with a skill. The department should consider what skills are necessary and try to address that.'

Mr Crawley also said courts should pass shorter jail terms and replace the time with more community works - instead of building a bigger jail to house more inmates.

'Prison is an expensive way to make bad people worse, and too many people are coming out of jail worse than when they went in,' he said. 'When you have a sewage programme, you take in the bad water and turn out cleaner water - that is what the system supposed to do. But if you put in dirty water and turn out even dirtier water - would you pay for it?'

Mr Crawley said countries in western Europe had adopted systems in which people went to jail for much shorter periods but performed more community services as part of their punishment, and recorded no increase in dangerous crimes.

'Try a system which is not just more humane but more practical, which is much cheaper and a lot better,' he said. 'These prisoners are also members of our society. Our prison system is not doing its job and it is not working. A wonderful super jail? Why not instead cut the sentences in half. Why do we need the super jail? Why don't we give them a chance and send them back [into the community]? I think this would lower by at least 20 per cent our prison population.'

In its defence, the CSD said adult prisoners were required to perform work six days a week to keep them 'meaningfully' occupied, with work including envelope-making, book-binding, laundry, garment-making, sign-making and carpentry.

Young prisoners received a compulsory half-day of vocational training in industrial or commercial skills and additional half-day education programmes.

All prisoners under of 21 and adult inmates working with the department's industrial manufacturing, are provided with computer training. But the department did not provide the number of inmates currently being trained.

'CSD is fully aware of the rehabilitation needs of other offenders, who are mostly adult offenders with a sentence of less than two years,' a department spokesman said. 'Before being discharged, all of them attend the Pre-release Reintegration Orientation Course. The objective of the course is to strengthen the reintegration process and better prepare them prior to their release. They are provided with updated information on supportive services with an emphasis on local labour legislation, employment services and training in job interview techniques.

'The CSD has also enlisted the help of non-government organisations, such as the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, to regularly organise employment counselling programmes to help prisoners find jobs after release. Offenders are also issued with a booklet containing the numbers of major welfare organisations.'

However, one former-inmate identified as 'Mr Chan', 42, who was newly released in April, told a different story.

Mr Chan said he was asked in May to leave his job in a restaurant where he had worked for a month, after his employer found out about his criminal record. The former inmate spent six months in jail for a drug offence. Inside prison, he was mainly tasked to manufacture fibre products which, he said, was a 'sunset' industry in Hong Kong without a future.

'The skills we learn in the prison cannot help us find work after release,' Mr Chan said. 'I and other fellow inmates expressed our wishes to the officers that we wanted to learn computer skills. But we were told that the department did not have the resources to provide [such] training. That was very disappointing. And now, here I am.'