Independent checks are needed to improve overcrowded and understaffed jails, Britain's former chief prisons inspector said yesterday. Sir Stephen Tumim, helping to compile the first independent report on the territory's prisons, made the call after visiting 12 institutions - including the High Island detention centre for Vietnamese boat people. While prison conditions were largely satisfactory, Sir Stephen said hygiene and accommodation at High Island were unacceptable. Compared with British institutions, Sir Stephen said, 'the prisons in Hong Kong are much cleaner, better kept, have less drugs and better order'. He said the main problems were overcrowding and understaffing, although he admitted his study was restricted by not being able to conduct private talks with prisoners. The 21 penal institutions, designed to hold 10,400 inmates, house 12,600. 'I would like to see something we have in the United Kingdom, which has an independent inspection system,' said Sir Stephen. The study, conducted with members of Human Rights Watch Asia and Human Rights Monitor, found visits to prisons by JPs were not an effective inspection system. Its preliminary findings have been discussed with Governor Chris Patten and the Commissioner of Correctional Services, Raymond Lai Ming-kee. Mr Patten was said to support a more open penal system. Mr Lai said he would decide whether independent investigations should continue. Joanne Mariner, of Human Rights Watch Asia, said the study group had been shocked to find conditions at High Island poorer than the living environment for criminals. Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai said: 'We found toilet water stains outside the hut doors. There is no lighting in some toilets and the bathrooms are very dirty.' Sir Stephen said more money should be spent on the camp to improve facilities. He was due to visit Hei Ling Chau Addiction Treatment Centre today with members of the human rights groups. A copy of the final report will go to the United Nations.