GOVERNOR Chris Patten has vowed to take action against overcrowding in prisons. Speaking at the Correctional Services Department's annual inspection and presentation of service medals, the Governor said it had not been an easy year for penal institutions. 'Overcrowding of the prisons, which is a perennial problem, has reached new heights,' he said. 'Most penal institutions are seriously overcrowded, and none more so than those catering for female offenders.' Latest figures show prisons are already 25 per cent over capacity with a total of 12,595 inmates. Hardest hit are the Chi Ma Wan Correctional Institution and the Tai Lam Centre for Women, both of which have occupancy rates of over 200 per cent. Chi Ma Wan, which is certified to accommodate 104 inmates has 239, while Tai Lam Centre houses 564 inmates in accommodation designed for 261. The Tai Lam Gap Correctional Institution also has overcrowding problems with 292 inmates in space designed for 160 - an occupancy rate of 183 per cent. Mr Patten said the overcrowding problem poses a threat to prison security by placing a severe burden on facilities, and was detrimental to staff morale and effective management. He assured the officers that 'means to alleviate the problem and of increasing accommodation in the short term were being looked at urgently' and long-term solutions such as the construction of a new medium-security institution at Stanley, were already under way. 'This will modernise Hong Kong's largest maximum security prison, provide much-needed new facilities and more importantly, some relief from the over-crowding' Mr Patten said. Earlier this week, the Commissioner of Correctional Services, Eric McCosh, said much of the overcrowding problem could be solved by deporting illegal immigrants rather than jailing them. His comments have the support of Legislative Councillor Elsie Tu, a member of Legco's Security Panel, who said almost one-third of prisoners are young illegal immigrants who face up to 15 months in prison before being deported. 'They are not criminals,' she said. 'They may have broken the law but they shouldn't be in prison.' 'They should also stop keeping witnesses in prison and consider other ways of dealing with very young criminals,' she said. At yesterday's ceremony, 30 officers, including two women, were awarded the Colonial Prison Service Medal for long and meritorious service. Officers must have served at least 18 years to be eligible.