It seems hard to imagine now. Just four years ago, the government was planning a HK$12 billion 'super prison' for the island of Hei Ling Chau, off south Lantau, with a 2km bridge linking 'the new Alcatraz' to Lantau at Silvermine Bay. Even that was a scaled-back version of an earlier proposal to house all Hong Kong's prisoners in one Hei Ling Chau complex at an estimated cost of HK$28 billion, on a 120-hectare site equivalent in size to four Victoria Parks, much of it reclaimed.
The super-prison project was finally shot down - or 'shelved' in official parlance - in October 2004 after a vocal campaign by community activists. Construction might otherwise be under way at a time when both the current and projected prison population is in decline.
Looking back, key participants see a cautionary tale in which a 'mega project' unravelled when the public sentiment towards such a huge-scale development changed and the planning assumptions on which it was based came into question. They also see silver linings.
'We know there was overcrowding in the prisons, we know the problem existed,' said former executive and legislative councillor Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, who was a member of the legislature's security panel at the time and initially supported the plan. 'But was the solution the right one? That was the whole issue.'
That issue also mobilised a small group of mainly Lantau residents to form the Living Islands Movement to oppose the super-prison plan.
'We didn't fight this one on an environmental ticket because the only thing that was unique to Hei Ling Chau was a thing called Bogadek's burrowing lizard, a spineless, blind, half-inch lizard which is basically one of Darwinism's losers,' said chairman Bob Bunker, who emphasised that the group was neither anti-government nor anti-development, as long as the development was 'sustainable'.
'Similarly, we didn't fight it on a 'go and build it somewhere else' ticket because we didn't want to get ourselves branded as Nimbys [not in my backyard]. We looked at it and thought it's actually not a terribly good idea. There must be better ways of doing things,' he added.
The idea for a super prison surfaced at the end of 2000 when the government warned legislators of the dangers of chronic prison over-crowding in Hong Kong. It said it would worsen, with an expected 30 per cent increase in the prison population by 2024, to 15,000.
The Correctional Services Department proposed to solve the problem by 'co-locating' all of the prisons in one purpose-built complex, as Singapore was doing. This was later reduced to a 'mid-sized co-location' after legislators expressed security concerns about having all the inmates in one location.
Picturesque Hei Ling Chau was identified as the preferred site for all the prisoners housed on Hong Kong Island and in urban Kowloon. This super facility would accommodate up to 7,220 inmates, or about half the anticipated penal population. The Legislative Council gave the green light in 2003 for an initial HK$7 million feasibility study.
The newly formed Living Islands Movement questioned the fundamental premise behind the plan and the price tag. 'The government kept saying, 'we've got to build the super prison because numbers of prisoners are going up'. And we said, 'well, why are numbers of prisoners going up and up when Hong Kong's population is going down, detection rates have changed and crime rates are reducing?',' said Mr Bunker. 'It turned out it was just mainland prostitutes that were being locked up for a few months before being sent back ... we were going to spend more than we spent on the Chek Lap Kok airport terminal buildings.'
While the government emphasised future operational savings of up to 20 per cent per annum from co-location of facilities such as laundries and kitchens, critics of the plan pounced on the argument. 'We said, 'so we're spending HK$12 billion so that mainland prostitutes can have clean underwear?',' said Mr Bunker, whose group also queried why arrangements could not be made for such offenders to serve their sentences across the border.
'We just kept laughing at it and saying this is a ridiculous waste of money and hasn't been thought through. I think it was the fact of the waste of money that finally turned them off it,' he added.
Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange, said the issue could be seen in the context of 'an overdesigned, overinfrastructured project'. While there must have been people in government who were also sceptical, she said, 'it took the public to kill it'.
Four years on, circumstances for correctional services in Hong Kong have changed markedly for the better. The number of female mainland prisoners has dropped by half - from 1,771 at the end of 2003 to 888. Deputy Commissioner of Correctional Services Rick Ying Kwok-ching attributes this to the mainland's economic growth.
Hong Kong's total penal population is at its lowest level in nearly a decade, at just under 10,500 prisoners. The projection eight years ago of 15,000 prisoners by 2024 has been revised to fewer than 14,000, mirroring downward projections for Hong Kong's population as a whole, plus other factors.
Also promising, according to the Security Bureau, is that differences over an agreement for transferring sentenced prisoners between Hong Kong and the mainland 'have been much narrowed down' since discussions began in 2000.
The overall level of occupancy levels in Hong Kong prisons has fallen from 115 per cent in 2002 to 95 per cent, Correctional Services Department figures show. Even the number of grievances before the department's complaints investigations unit is down, from 222 in 2003 to 158 last year.
'It is a sign that we are probably on the right track in handling all the issues in relation to correctional services,' said Mr Ying.
Although overcrowding remained an issue at some facilities, he said, the overall decline in the penal population had created a 'buffer' that eased the way for an alternative prison development plan, which he described as 'co-location on a modest scale'.
So far, it has involved redeveloping the Lo Wu correctional facility for less than HK$1.4 billion, to accommodate up to 1,400 prisoners in three institutions when it opens in 2010. Then there is the plan to redevelop two institutions at Chi Ma Wan, on Lantau, into a larger facility housing 1,000 inmates. Feasibility studies are under way and public consultation is due to start soon.
'We don't, touch wood, have escapes. We have a very orderly life in the institutions. We provide the prisoners as far as possible with rehabilitative services to rebuild them,' said Mr Ying.
He noted that the department had been able to devote more resources to rehabilitation and vocational training in recent years. 'This would not be possible when all the correctional institutions [were] crowded with prisoners. But now we have more room to manipulate.
'I think the current arrangement - that is, in situ redevelopment of prisons - is a very good balance of the interests,' Mr Ying said.
Selina Chow gives credit to the Correctional Services Department and its former commissioner Kelvin Pang Sung-yuen for the way they moved on after the super-prison plan was derailed, despite years of work and lobbying.
'He [Mr Pang] wasn't defensive, he wasn't bitter about it. He just took it in his stride as 'one of those things; we have to listen to people and that's it'. I would say he was in a minority and I just hope there is more of that kind of sentiment. I think that ought to be the way the government handles this kind of controversy,' she said.
Mrs Chow said the government did learn from the 'community awakening' at the time the super prison and other projects, such as the first West Kowloon Cultural District proposal, came unstuck.
'Before, the government tended to be so boxed in, so pigeon-holed with different departments each looking after its interests and solving its problems individually. Because the super prison was in the Security Bureau, the environmental perspective of it was never considered until it was too late.'
Mrs Chow always advocated having 'someone who is first among equals, or one level up' to ensure an adequate balancing of different perspectives and interests. 'I think that is happening more than before,' she said, citing the creation of co-ordinating roles such as that of the tourism commissioner and development secretary.
Although, Mr Bunker foresaw issues ahead for the Living Islands Movement, such as the planned Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, he complimented the government for at least one improvement in public consultation since the super-prison case. It had 'behaved very well', he said, in planning a facelift for Silvermine Bay/Mui Wo. He said the Planning Department had worked hard to get the local community involved at a very early stage and to gather ideas. 'If you approach it this way, the community owns the decision. It takes more time to start with, but you don't end up with everyone jumping up and down,' he said.
Mr Ying said the super-prison saga affirmed that the normal view when talking about building a prison was 'not in my backyard'. 'This we understand fully well and we must have to take into account in our future planning for the redevelopment of our outdated prisons,' he said.
'On the other hand, we must understand that we should not adopt a definite idea that the prisons must be isolated from the community. The prisoners therein come from the community and they're part of the community.'