It has been a long, hot summer in Ma Po Ping Prison on Lantau. The past month has seen two large brawls among dozens of inmates and two breakouts. It has also, according to human rights workers, exposed the inherent problems of the monitoring system in prisons. For decades the Hong Kong Government has resisted the international trend to establish an independent, expert body to do this job. Instead, the only regular in-prison inspections are by justices of the peace - the 1,018 community leaders who include Anson Chan Fang On-sang, David Li Kwok-po and others deemed to be, according to a government spokesman, 'persons of integrity and social standing'. The use of JPs, who receive no pay and no training for this job, came under sharp attack last year when a delegation organised by Human Rights Watch and Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, which included Britain's former chief prison inspector Judge Sir Stephen Tumin, were granted unique access to all the territory's 23 correctional institutions. The visit followed incidents such as a new inmate at Lai Chi Kok being beaten to death in April 1996 and overcrowding, which the Government admitted was 'a serious problem'. One of the delegation's strongest criticisms focused on 'serious defects in the approach and methodology of Hong Kong's system of JP visits', which were a key protection for prisoners, they said. In June, Ombudsman Andrew So Kwok-wing, agreed, calling for a review of JP visits. The government has agreed to a review, but it remains adamant against an independent inspectorate. The recent events at Ma Po Ping, according to Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai, have proven this is not enough. On July 27, an incident just before evening mealtime left 21 prisoners injured as local prisoners, mainlanders and CSD staff clashed. In another brawl, in a workshop, three prisoners were taken to hospital after being hit over the head by plastic stools. Like all prisons, it is scheduled for a regular inspection by justices of the peace every two weeks. On August 5 a visit took place - and found only a small number of complaints. One day later a very different inspection took place - with very different results. Early in the morning prison staff were surprised to see Legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing and Paul Chan Kam-cheung, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, standing outside with the intention of making the first unannounced, non-official prison inspection in Hong Kong. Eight hours later, Ms Lau and Mr Chan had heard 98 complaints, and received letters from 37 inmates, mostly allegations of excessive use of force by prison staff. Some alleged they had been beaten even as they knelt submissively on the ground - a direct challenge to the claim that only 'necessary force' had been used. The differences between the two inspections are remarkable. The official inspection followed the usual routine. Two JPs were chosen at random. One was an 'official JP', that is to say, a civil servant, and the other an unofficial JP, a prominent member of the public. In theory, the visits are a surprise to the prison staff. But in practice, transport is arranged by the official JP, and this has led to widespread belief that the surprise is somewhat limited. Visits to Lantau prisons are often via Government Flying Services helicopter, with a Correctional Services Department car waiting at the helipad. In contrast, Ms Lau and Mr Chan, both JPs, stepped out of a Lantau taxi. 'The officers were quite co-operative, but of course they suggested that our report was not required as they had just had a normal JP's visit,' said Mr Chan. Nevertheless, they were allowed entry. When JPs tour a prison, they are escorted by the prison superintendent, who shouts out 'Visit by Justices of the Peace! Does anyone have any complaints? If so, please raise your hands.' Mr Chan, a JP since May 1996, says this has a strong deterrent effect: 'If someone has a complaint against the prison management, I don't think anyone would have the courage to do this.' Those brave enough to raise their hands then have to wait to go to the superintendents' office, where the two visitors hear the complaint - with the prison superintendent listening in. Carlye Tsui Wai-ling, a provisional urban councillor and businesswoman, says after more than four years visiting prisons as a JP 'many times no one has any complaints at all'. Lee Jark-pui, Lippo Group director and a JP since 1984, said: 'I don't recall a serious complaint.' Ombudsman Mr So said prison staff listening to complaints 'compromise the impartiality and credibility of the visiting JP system'. The system also appears to breach the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, issued in 1955, which states 'the prisoner shall have the opportunity to talk to the inspector . . . without the director or other member of the staff being present'. One senior prison staffer explained JPs were not allowed to talk privately with prisoners because 'it has to do with who is running the prison. The visiting justice of the peace is not running the prison.' When Mr Chan and Ms Lau visited Ma Po Ping, they again toured the prison, and inmates had to put their hands up to indicate they had a complaint. Even though the senior superintendent was present the two visitors heard complaints non-stop from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Law Yuk-kai of Human Rights Monitor said one big difference between the two inspections was Ms Lau's reputation as a true independent who would ensure complaints were properly handled. He believes an independent prisons inspectorate could win the same reputation. 'If their job was to monitor the system and they developed the professionalism to avoid being 'captured' by the prisons system, then they would be able to do it,' he said. From his experience visiting prisons, Mr Chan says one factor dissuading prisoner complaints is lack of follow-up. Some JPs, possibly short of time due to pressing business interests, merely pass complaints back to prison staff and make no effort to ensure problems are solved. And the visiting JP may not return for years, if ever, to see if things have been improved. At the end of the visit, the civil servant's report is written in an official log book. The human rights delegations, which were granted access, noted: 'We found them to be brief and almost uniformly uncritical.' For instance, at High Island Detention Centre, the Vietnamese camp also inspected by JPs, the monitors discovered 'several significant deficiencies', including filthy, insect-infested toilets and frequent disease outbreaks. They then looked at the comments of the recently visited JPs, who had written: 'The sanitary conditions were not entirely satisfactory . . . [but] overall, the centre was in good order'. They also uncovered a clear case of an inmate being punished for complaining. A Pakistani inmate in Ma Po Ping in December, 1996 complained he had been put in 'administrative segregation' - a form of solitary punishment - for allegedly intimidating other prisoners into signing a petition about the quality of the food. For two months he complained to every visiting JP about his continuing punishment - and was then moved to Shek Pik Prison, a higher-security prison. Asked why, the superintendent said the man was moved because he 'had been making frequent requests to see the visiting justices of the peace and the Ombudsman'. The CSD inquiry into events at Ma Po Ping will probably report its findings today. As complaints over Ma Po Ping have grown, the CSD has quoted sections of the report written by last year's human rights delegation, which praised the CSD for running strict but orderly prisons. However, it has yet to quote the sections which state 'the Hong Kong Government should establish an independent prisons inspectorate'.