Hong Kong's prison service can allow itself two cheers and a pat on the back. A report into the territory's penal institutions compiled by Britain's former chief inspector of prisons, Sir Stephen Tumim, together with Human Rights Watch Asia and Human Rights Monitor gives the system a relatively clean bill of health. Compared with many other countries, especially in Asia, our prisons are safe and well-disciplined; cells are clean, food is adequate and nutritious and the kitchens even provide for the dietary requirements of ethnic minorities. Nobody expects prison inmates to enjoy holiday camp conditions or live in luxury, but one need only consider the conditions endured by prisoners in other parts of Asia, Eastern Europe or the developing world to realise Hong Kong's prison population is very well looked after indeed. But that is not to suggest by any means that conditions are perfect. The report also points to relatively serious overcrowding, with prisoners sometimes living three to a cell. With the prison system running at 20 per cent over capacity there are bound to be problems related to the stress and tensions overcrowding creates. This makes it all the more worrying that the territory's 21 penal institutions are also heavily understaffed, especially at night. It is probably no coincidence that while there is relatively little indiscipline, what violence there is is more often between inmates and staff than between individual inmates. Warders and guards in prisons without a full complement of staff are more likely to resort to heavy-handed disciplinary measures than their counterparts in properly manned institutions. The Government is in fact acting to deal with the overcrowding, and is building six new institutions to cope with the overflow. But the report's strictures on prison service manning levels should not be ignored. Nor should its calls for an independent inspectorate to ensure conditions are improved or at least kept at their current high standards. The present system of prison visits by Justices of the Peace has worked reasonably well in the past, particularly in such matters as ensuring basic amenities and decent physical conditions. But a system which relies on eminent citizens, chosen not for their expertise in prison inspection or prisoners' rights, but for their membership of the establishment, is not much of a guarantee of humane treatment. It is, for instance, clear that some of Hong Kong's rules on inmates' rights are out of date and out of line with best practice in more modern systems. In the UK for instance - which is certainly not without its grim, overcrowded prisons, violence or indiscipline - it is accepted as normal that inmates should have the right to letters and visits from their families and not be restricted to one letter a week. Furthermore, inspectors must be given the right to investigate complaints from prisoners as well as training in how to do the job. They should have sufficient resources and freedoms not to have to rely on warders for information and support. It would be foolish to pretend that the prison population is full of misunderstood 'victims' who would be angels if only they were offered a little tea and sympathy, or that the prison staff are all thugs and brutes whose only desire is to bully and mistreat their charges. But there is clearly something out of balance in a system which dismisses all but four of the 181 complaints filed by prisoners against their keepers last year, but sustains all but four of the 1,117 disciplinary actions against prisoners in Lai Chi Kok alone. Given the balance of power inside a penal institution, it takes a considerable amount of courage or desperation for a prisoner to file a formal complaint against a warder in the first place - the notion that such a large proportion of complaints would come from prisoners ready to risk official or unofficial sanction by staff simply to raise trivial matters is clearly untenable. Lastly, the report's call for greater emphasis on training and rehabilitation for the prison population must be given serious attention. A successful return to life outside the prison system requires a considerable amount of preparation and education. Teaching skills such as book-binding or shoe-making, which are not much required in modern Hong Kong, is unlikely to keep many former convicts off the streets and out of trouble. It should not be beyond the resources of a prosperous society with high employment levels and an established training infrastructure to ensure that at least some former drop-outs and failures are offered the skills and support to become useful and productive citizens. No society is perfect and there will always be a need for prisons and a penal system. But it should be a system which is designed to rescue inmates from the scrap heap not to dump them there permanently.