Lax controls exposing Hong Kong prisoners to infectious diseases, former detainee says

Prisoner with tuberculosis was not given surgical mask despite repeated requests, ex-inmate claims

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2017, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2017, 8:01pm

Inadequate prison control measures are exposing inmates to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV, according to a former remand detainee.

The former inmate, surnamed Chen, approached the Post after being remanded at Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre for 13 days in January to undergo a mental assessment and report.

Hong Kong’s prison system explained

He said a detainee from over the border, named Wang, coughed day and night without wearing a surgical mask and told others he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in mainland China. Chen was staying in a double ward next to Wang’s cell.

Wang was not given a mask or isolated from the group despite repeated complaints to prison officers, Chen said.

“I had to cover myself with the blanket at night,” Chen said. “I am not discriminating. But the ventilation is very bad, and I must protect myself because I have two kids. I don’t want them to get the disease when I go home.”

Chen said prison officers once attempted to move him into Wang’s ward, but he resisted.

He added that during the day, about 40 prisoners were routinely packed into a 300 sq ft activity room, sparking fears of widespread infection.

Adding to his concerns, Chen said he noticed another inmate taking pills daily, which other prisoners recognised as treatment for Aids.

I must protect myself because I have two kids. I don’t want them to get the disease when I go home
Chen, inmate

He said he was told by a prison officer the detainee suffered from HIV, which may lead to Aids.

“Maybe we should have the right to know about his infection?” Chen added.

A survey of about 1,400 inmates showed that the prevalence of newly admitted HIV-positive prisoners in Hong Kong increased from 0.7 per cent in 2012 to 1.2 per cent in 2015, the Department of Health said.

And while the number of tuberculosis cases within prisons is not reported, there were 4,412 confirmed cases across the city last year.

“As a principle, HIV-positive patients need not be isolated,” a health department spokesman said.

Hong Kong Aids Foundation programme manager Jones Chung stressed there was no need for those living with HIV to notify other prisoners as the virus posed a very low risk to other people in normal social interactions.

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“The situation of HIV is different from other diseases such as tuberculosis,” Chung said, adding that it could only be transmitted through body fluids such as blood and semen.

According to the Correctional Services Department, it is not compulsory for all newly admitted persons in custody to undergo blood tests, and the authorities decide on whether to isolate those with infectious diseases.

A Correctional Services Department spokeswoman said all similar institutions had on-site hospitals that provided round-the-clock basic health care by medical officers seconded from the Department of Health.

“Medical officers decide if a laboratory test, such as a blood test, is required. All new prisoners with infectious diseases will be referred to medical specialists,” she said.

The prison authority refused to comment on the individual cases highlighted by Chen, citing confidentiality and privacy restrictions. The health status and medical treatment of an inmate may only be disclosed to concerned parties, and on a need-to-know basis.

The prison authority said it encouraged all new prisoners to seek prompt medical attention and put on surgical masks for any respiratory symptoms.

“In order to prevent the emergence of infectious diseases … we follow the same treatment protocol that the health authority applies to the public.”

A frontline prison officer, who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity, said they were not too concerned about infectious diseases as there were well-established procedures in place.