On June 18, 1974, warders at Stanley Prison were routinely opening the doors to a maximum-security hall to take inmates out in a working party. Suddenly five convicts - three murderers and two robbers - pulled out hidden clubs, attacked the prison officers and started to scramble up an interior wall. Other inmates were working on the wall, adding extra layers of coiled barbed wire. The five escapees clambered across this obstacle, dropped into another courtyard, grabbed a ladder being used for the repair work and scaled the main six-metre outer wall. One of the five fell and was injured too badly to move. The other four took off, running wildly towards the beach at the rear of the jail. Did they hope to steal a boat? Was there a rendezvous arranged to speed them away? Nobody knows. They never made it to the shore. The four jailbreakers ran straight into the arms of a group of prison officers. The escape lasted only a couple of minutes, but the attempt made history: it was the only time anyone had managed to get over the walls of Hong Kong's toughest prison. Stanley Prison, still Hong Kong's top maximum-security jail, opened 70 years ago. Today it's busier than ever, with new self-contained blocks rising behind its forbidding outer walls. For 65 years people on the outside could see little of what lay inside the 64,000-square-metre compound behind high whitewashed walls. The six main cell blocks opened in 1936 were three storeys high. Each block had 82 cells per floor. The facility's 1,476 cells were designed to accommodate 2,000 prisoners. Today, rising high above the wall is the smart stone facade of Category A Complex, a high-security block opened in 2002 at a cost of HK$145 million. At first glance, it may look like the annexe to a five-star hotel. But go through the carefully designed gates, past the CCTV cameras, up in lifts that respond to coded instructions and past more double-locked portals and any notion of hospitality fades. Through more locked doors are prisoners bent over work benches. Dressed in chocolate brown uniforms, inmates in the block are murderers and other long-termers. To be consigned to this separate part of the prison, a convict's jail term has to be at least 12 years. That dubious distinction sees 256 inmates living in separate cells in a steel cocoon that is a prison inside a prison. If escape has proved impossible from Stanley, the idea of someone managing to get out of the top-security annexe is unthinkable. As in 1936, specialist architects and security experts were involved in planning the maximum-security enclave. The cells are tall and cool with walls a gentle yellow. Each cell has a stainless steel toilet and wash basin, a bed, a plastic stool and a table. They lead into a common area where, after working hours, prisoners can mingle, chat and watch television. It's not the sort of place you'd really want to visit, let alone be locked up in. But it's where many of the inmates will spend the rest of their lives. In the 1930s, colonial officials planned Stanley Prison with similar meticulous care. It was intended to be a symbol in iron and stone of the world's most modern penitentiary system and a far cry from the bad old days of the 19th century, when inmates in Victoria Prison were shackled in foul-smelling cells and forced into meaningless, torturous toil. The cream of the colony turned up in June 1937 to inspect the jail. The first inmates were yet to be marched through the imposing main gate when the governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott, led hundreds of curious spectators into the huge compound. The afternoon included some comical touches, reported with a stiff upper lip by the South China Morning Post. The governor was one of the victims. As he was inspecting a tea boiler in the kitchen he scalded his hand. It was treated swiftly by the jail's medical officer, Dr G. I. Shaw. Then the governor's aide de camp, Captain W. R. J. Cragg, managed to lock himself in a cell. Another visitor, G. P. de Martin, also found himself behind bars in cell No82. He had walked in and closed the door behind him, and it had locked automatically. But most of the legislative councillors, businessmen, judges and magistrates and the press managed to navigate the new facility without harming themselves or locking one another up. Superintendent J. W. Franks and his staff presided, as honour guards of European and Indian warders lined up at the main gate. The architect who designed the jail, S. C. Feltham, showed the governor and leading ladies around the pristine but grim interior. But some of his design work was not on show; the gallows were not on the list for public inspection, nor was the equipment used to dish out corporal punishment to violent and recalcitrant inmates. The visitors seven decades ago were impressed with what they saw. The two-hour visit gave them the chance to see modern workshops at a time when the theory of rehabilitating prisoners so they could earn an honest living on release was a novel concept. 'Visitors to the new jail cannot but be impressed with the advanced and humane treatment for evil-doers as compared with a few decades ago,' the South China Morning Post opined. 'Gone are the gloomy cells and grey, damp corners of old prisons, and in their place are light-coloured, stuccoed walls, airy exercise yards and well ventilated cells and work rooms.' The reporter noted that disciplinary needs had not been ignored, with bars in windows and the six-metre walls surrounding a compound of more than 2.5 square kilometres. The prison was 'ideally located', with prisoners able in summer to enjoy the sea breezes that blow across the Stanley peninsula. In the 1930s, one major prison industry was the print shop, where outside expert staff operated such modern equipment as linotype machines on which inmates trained. Nowadays, high-quality printing remains one of the jail's major productive activities. Prisoners turn out banners for government assemblies, street signs, large public notices, government brochures and other publications. The quality matches that of any established print workshop. Seven decades ago, convicts made boots for police and prison staff. Today they still do. It is the cell blocks that form the heart of the new prison - six individual blocks each 18 metres apart and self-contained so if trouble flares up in one block, it can be locked down to prevent its spread to other units. If an old lag who went through processing in the reception block in 1937 was to return as a prisoner today, he would be familiar with the layout and the routine. But there is one major improvement on the 1,476 original cells: the hated slopping-out procedure is no more. When they were built, each cell had two buckets. One contained water for drinking and washing, the other was used as a toilet. Every morning, the prisoners' first duty was to line up and empty and clean the toilet bucket. Now all the cells have toilets and washing units. Throughout the correctional services the daily routines of both inmates and officers are laid out in minute detail. Diets - Chinese, English, Indian and vegetarian - are prescribed to the gram. Work schedules are listed. Every prisoner at every hour of the day and night is the responsibility of a named duty officer. And in some ways, the prison's staff are as tightly bound by the institutional rules and regulations as the inmates. Chief Superintendent Thomas Yeung Ping-wing remembers his first day at Stanley. That was in 1974 when he marched in through the massive gate as a young recruit. Today he can smile, but back then he was nervous when first confronted by a large group of inmates covered in garish tattoos. As the man who runs Stanley Prison, he faces daily challenges. His biggest headache is maintenance. The buildings are getting old and constantly in need of repair. Engines, cookers, plumbing and electricity - all require constant visits by Architectural Services Department staff. And then there is the new ethos of prisoners' rights, a concept that probably never weighed on the conscience of Superintendent Franks back in 1937. 'Prisoners are now very clever and some well educated,' Mr Yeung said with a sigh. 'If they are not satisfied with a decision they can take us to court or seek a judicial review.' One prisoner is taking the department to the Small Claims Tribunal, claiming a cash settlement because he does not like the way in which prison regulations insist margarine is spread on his bread. He wants to put the margarine on himself. He argues that because he gets his bread already spread, it exacerbates his cholesterol problem. The man is seeking HK$50,000 in compensation. The jail, certified to hold 1,794 prisoners, is now 'home' to 1,771. There are 893 staff - a ratio of staff to occupants that would be the envy of many a hotel manager. 'Our main aim today is rehabilitation,' Mr Yeung said. 'We try to prepare inmates for a meaningful life when they are released.' There are three busy computer rooms with scores of computers and prisoners are encouraged to go to classes at night - Putonghua, English and computer studies are favoured subjects. There is also a music room with guitars and drum kits. But despite the new, caring ethos - the stress on rehabilitation instead of punishment and the ceaseless surveillance of inmates for their own protection as well as for security - being a convict is not an enjoyable occupation. Last week a dozen teenage boys neatly dressed in school uniforms visited the library in the maximum-security wing. The boys received a lesson that teachers could not give them in a classroom, from a tattooed triad thug serving a long sentence for crimes of extortion and violence. 'Look at me,' the prisoner told the boys. 'Look at this place. Think of my life. Don't join a triad.' The message was probably the same in 1937.