New green jail offers a more humane look

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am

Life behind bars was never supposed to be easy, but no one said it couldn't be breezy.

A wind of change may be about to sweep through Hong Kong's prison system after the completion of a jail which promotes open space - up to a point, of course - the environment and energy-saving.

A so-called green prison at Lo Wu was designed by the Architectural Services Department in co-operation with the Correctional Services Department and it seeks to dismantle the myth that prison has to be dark, dank and airless.

After winning a grand award in a regional green building competition yesterday, the 57,000 sq m facility in Ho Sheung Heung is being billed as a jail of the future.

However, for now, only women prisoners will be sent to the medium-security facility by the courts as more women are moved from overcrowded and ageing jails elsewhere in the territory.

When full, the facility will hold 1,400 women, making it the city's second biggest jail by population. The maximum security Stanley Prison holds 1,511 inmates.

The new complex, which the Correctional Services Department is less keen to talk about than their architectural counterparts, promotes natural lighting and a cooler environment to provide, the designers say, a more humane living space for prisoners, along with a series of green and energy-saving designs.

'Building a prison with green elements is a real innovation,' said Victor Cheng Chi-kong, chairman of the Green Building Award's organising committee. 'Not only does it save energy. It also enhances the working and living conditions for staff and inmates.'

The jail, which took three years to design and build, cost more than HK$1.2 billion and started operating in July. It will eventually be staffed by 500 guards and related correctional employees.

By giving the complex a more transparent design and constructing three large dormitory blocks to take advantage of wind flow, inmates are now living in more airy cells. They also find that their biological clocks are back to normal.

'Living in a dim environment, they sometimes could not distinguish days from nights,' said Edwin Wong Kuo-yang, senior project manager of the Architectural Services Department. 'This is particularly important for staff, who are spending over a third of their time monitoring the prisoners.'

Prisons in Hong Kong are not air-conditioned. Most have extremely small windows that cannot be opened. And inmates are exposed to rain and hot conditions when they move from cells to workplaces in times of extreme weather.

Under the new design, a sterile corridor with windows that can be opened is built alongside cells to maintain a ventilated indoor environment. Blocks in the complex are also connected by covered bridges.

The living area of inmates is more spacious as the ceiling height reaches 10 metres. An underground passage is also designed in the complex for transporting food and for maintenance operations.

Apart from adding a green roof to lower the indoor temperature, heat-generating facilities like the kitchen and laundry room are placed on the top floor to limit the spread of heat. Spot cooling supported by solar panels on rooftops is also provided at cooking and ironing areas to provide more comfort in workplaces.

The visiting centre, where inmates meet friends and family, is no longer dim and surrounded by steel bars. A parent centre is provided for inmates giving birth, so that they can still bond with their babies.

Chief project manager David Chak Wing-pong said: 'Inmates can be better behaved, given an enhanced environment and psychological conditions.'

Judges of the competition said they were impressed with a ventilation system where fans were installed underground to suck fresh air from outside at grass level. This air would then be transported to different corners of the buildings to enhance indoor air flow.

Chak said the development cost was not particularly high compared with other prisons as the design did not require expensive facilities. Careful planning was more relevant.

The department will monitor the amount of energy consumed and the indoor temperature of the complex to fine-tune the improvements, he said. The government would continue to transform existing prisons into a better place in future redevelopment projects.

Overpopulation in Hong Kong's women's prisons has been an issue for some time and the new facility will help ease congestion. The average daily female prison number topped 104 per cent of total capacity in 2008 at 2,103. Women comprised 1,932 of the 9,882 total prisoners in Hong Kong by the end of last year. Correctional facilities for women should now be able to hold 2,099 inmates.

A total of 56 entries were received in the regional green building competition, of which more than 20 were sent from 18 cities in the Asia-Pacific region. The competition, jointly organised by the Hong Kong Green Building Council and the Professional Green Building Council, is held every two years and it was opened to other Asian cities for the first time this year.

International judges were invited, including Professor Raymond Cole from the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture in Canada. Cole is a world-renowned authority on green buildings.

Only the top seven of 45 finalists were awarded grand awards yesterday, including the Lo Wu prison.

Participants have to demonstrate how their buildings are environmentally friendly to their users and the community, and whether they are innovative and sustainable in long-term management.

Other designs gaining awards included Sau Mau Ping South Estate, Kowloon, for detailed site planning; the Skyline Tower in Kowloon Bay and Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong for their low carbon operation; and two projects on the mainland - an eco-primary school in Gansu province and a village reconstructed at Maanqiao in Sichuan province - supported by a research team of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Jail of the future

When full, the prison at Lo Wu will house this amount of women inmates: 1,400