Women in Hong Kong prisons may be forced to cut hair short

Short hair could be the rule for all after court decision on lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung’s signature locks, but how short is ‘short’?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 8:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 11:02pm

Hong Kong’s 1,800 female inmates may need to wear their hair short as correctional authorities consider follow-up action to a court ruling that it was unlawful to shear lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung of his signature locks during his brief incarceration in 2014, the Post has learned.

But the idea, aimed at drawing an equal line between female and male inmates, is understood to have drawn a strong reaction from women prisoners, and the head of the Correctional Services Department on Wednesday said no decision had yet been made.

Prison chiefs are also understood to be mulling lodging an appeal against the court verdict.

A source of senior rank in the service said compulsory hair cuts for all inmates was among the options on the table, but it might provoke “unimaginable consequences”.

“Many female prisoners gave us negative feedback on this. We understand hair styles can change women and have a huge impact on them, especially on their emotions,” the source said.

“You can’t imagine what would happen if all 1,300 inmates staged mass indisciplinary action at the Lo Wu female correctional institution over such a decision.”

The source also said it would be difficult to define “how short is short” for haircuts.

“Why does 10 inches of hair pose a security risk while nine inches does not? Where should we draw the line?” the source said.

The average daily prison population climbed 1.6 per cent on 2015’s number to reach 8,546 inmates last year, with 21 per cent of those female.

Women inmates can keep their hair while all male prisoners are required to cut it “sufficiently close for the purposes of health and cleanliness”.

Leung lodged a judicial review application against the department after he was told to cut his hair while held at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre in 2014.

The authority said in court that the “operational measure” reduced risks for inmates, including their vulnerability in the event of an attack by another inmate.

But a High Court judge ruled that such a rule violated the Basic Law as it constituted sexual discrimination. He ordered it be corrected by June 1.

“I have seen a lot of male inmates hiding prohibited items or weapons in their long hair. Female prisoners have no such cases,” the source said.

Isaac Yau Chi-chiu, commissioner of the department, on Wednesday refused to disclose its plans to comply with the ruling, only saying the authority was seeking legal advice on the possibility of filing an appeal.

“While we are considering an appeal, we are also revising the hair cut arrangements,” Yau said. “After we have considered our operational arrangements, we will notify our stakeholders, especially the people in custody, in advance on the changes.”

The correctional authority also faces another legal challenge from a prison officer who applied for a judicial review on Monday claiming the department’s “disapproval” of her wearing a Buddhist bead bracelet while on duty amounted to discrimination and violated her religious freedom.

When asked if prison rules had not kept pace with changes in society, Yau said the authority reviewed regulations regularly in order to do so.