Former Hong Kong inmate joins push for ex-offenders’ rights
Launching Tsim Sha Tsui exhibition, Fung Kwun-chung and Society for Community Organisation say employers should have less access to applicants’ criminal records, in push to lessen stigma and smooth the road to long-term recovery
Fung Kwun-chung is a counsellor at a rehabilitation service centre for drug users. He is the lead singer of a band there called Dream Class, and played soccer for Hong Kong at the 2017 Homeless World Cup in Oslo.
The 33-year-old’s sporty and clean appearance gives no clue to his past: for a decade from the age of 16 he used an array of soft drugs and served eight prison terms, the longest lasting two years.
He has had an artificial bladder since 2016 because the original – along with part of his large intestine – was totally ruined by the drugs.
“We are all humans. We all make mistakes and some are bigger than others. Why are those who made bigger mistakes not given an opportunity to mend their ways?” Fung said.
“You don’t have to give a hand, but please do not trample them,” the former offender said as he joined the Society for Community Organisation (Soco) to advocate fairer and better treatment for former and serving prisoners.
A photo exhibition about ex-offenders, organised by Soco, will kick off on Friday at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, and run until April 12. There, visitors will be able to speak to former offenders about the issues they face.
Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser with Soco, called on the Law Reform Commission and the government to regulate employers’ rights to request criminal records, to reduce employment discrimination against ex-offenders.
Fung said he never hid his records from potential employers. But the full disclosure has taken a toll since he left prison for the last time in 2013, aged 28. “I admitted that I had criminal records during an interview for a job at a laundry workshop, and I never heard from the recruiters again,” Fung said. But he said that was “totally understandable”.
And when he worked for a logistics company as a delivery assistant, he was often upset by the suspicions of his boss and colleagues.
“When they couldn’t find some goods – though it later turned out that they put them somewhere and forgotten – they would look at me, and ask me about the goods’ whereabouts before anything else,” he said.
His work was also affected by his drug-worn bladder. “I was fired for four to five times for going to the toilet too often at work,” he said.
The frustration stymied the former prisoner’s year-long effort to end his abusive habits. Fung sought shelter from drugs several times, reverting to his old habits when he thought he would never be accepted as a normal member of society, no matter how hard he tried.
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Recidivism – instead of reintegration – often stems from the discrimination and alienation experienced by ex-offenders like Fung, according to surveys conducted by Soco.
In its 2009 study of 79 ex-offenders, the group found that almost 77 per cent had less than HK$600 when they left prison, and less than three in 10 were employed at the time of the survey.
Close to 59 per cent of former prisoners polled found their criminal record an obstacle to getting a job. Nearly 85 per cent – or 66 ex-offenders – said employers asked for the records during interviews. Only nine of the 66 got the job.
Another study by Soco, of 50 ex-offenders aged over 50 in 2015, found that financial troubles – which contribute to homelessness, unemployment and disconnection from family and friends – added to the risk of recidivism.
“There is no sufficient privacy protection for former prisoners in Hong Kong, allowing employers in every industry to ask for a jobseeker’s criminal record as they see fit,” Ng said.
Ng said such checks are reasonable in “sensitive industries” such as education and security, but added that the lack of regulation in effect tolerates discrimination in the whole labour market.
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Ordinance stipulates that a person’s record should be considered clean three years after a conviction, as long as it was their first conviction, it was a relatively minor offence and they have not reoffended in the three years.
In a 2004 report, the Law Reform Commission recommended the government seriously consider amending the ordinance to help ex-offenders’ rehabilitation, but the government did not act on the recommendation.
Last year, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu told the Legislative Council that the ordinance “struck a balance between assisting the rehabilitation of offenders and safeguarding public security”.
He said that in the previous three years the Criminal Conviction Data Office received no complaints about employers refusing to hire people based on criminal records that might otherwise be withheld.
From 2011 to 2015, the recidivism rate decreased from 29.2 per cent to 27.1 per cent, according to a spokesman for the Correctional Services Department (CSD).
Last August, Fung left his unstable part-time jobs and returned to be a peer coach at the Jockey Club Lodge of Rising Sun, a centre in Tuen Mun which since 2003 has provided drug abusers with treatment and rehabilitation services.
“My biggest wish is to bring hope to people who are trying to change their lives, using my experience,” Fung said.
The CSD spokesman said offenders in custody must undergo an assessment of their rehabilitation needs and reoffending risks before being matched with rehabilitation programmes, which include religious, psychological and vocational services.
“Despite the efforts mentioned, the successful reintegration and rehabilitation of persons in custody relies very much on their own determination and there are always cases where persons in custody relapse to criminal behaviour,” he said.