Complaints from prisoners to the government watchdog have soared almost 10-fold in less than three years, it was revealed yesterday. Since July last year, there had been 274 complaints - compared to just 29 for the entire year from July 1994 when the Ombudsman's services were opened to inmates. Assistant ombudsman Viola Chan Wai-ping said there had been 100 complaints registered last month alone. There were 262 complaints in 1996-97. However, Ms Chan said there was no evidence jail conditions had worsened, instead attributing the increase to law changes and a campaign to raise prisoners' awareness of the Ombudsman. She urged authorities to deal with complaints more quickly. She said the Correctional Services Department had been generally co-operative. 'However, there was a time when they were a bit slow to respond due to a sudden increase in the number of complaints,' she said. 'Dragging it out too long is not fair for either the complainants or those they complain against.' Ms Chan said the watchdog's work had been hindered by the department's refusal to allow direct access to the complainants. 'We have asked to talk to the complainants by phone but it was denied,' she said. 'Consequently, we spend a lot of time on written correspondence.' Ms Chan said that of the 262 complaints received by the Ombudsman last year, 14 cases were investigated. One complaint was substantiated and four others partially substantiated.