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Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Prisoners in Hong Kong who read no Chinese or English have few books to choose from behind bars

Authorities reluctant to buy material in other languages due to security concerns, but lawmakers find reasoning dubious

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 12:03pm

When Willis Ho Kit-wang was assigned to work in the library at Lo Wu Correctional Institution during her early days behind bars, she soon discovered something was not right at the prison.

The 26-year-old activist was shocked to learn an African-language book had been repeatedly borrowed by the same inmate over the past six years.

Ho then realised there were fewer than 10 books in African languages on the shelves. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Book offerings in other languages, such as Indonesian and Vietnamese, were equally scarce, although the prison had housed more than 1,200 women of different ethnic backgrounds, with some serving long sentences for drug-related crimes.

“Libraries in prisons are supposed to play a key role in promoting rehabilitation, as they can provide a lot of resources and learning opportunities,” Ho explained. “But for those who cannot read in English [and Chinese], it’s not unusual to keep borrowing the same books over and over again.”

She added that such books were usually very short and could be finished in one sitting.

It’s not unusual for them to keep borrowing the same books over and over again
Willis Ho-Kit-wang, activist

Ho was one of 13 activists convicted for storming the city’s Legislative Council in 2014, protesting the government’s plan to build a new town in the northeast New Territories. She is now on bail pending her appeal.

According to figures obtained by the Post, 83 per cent of the roughly 100,000 books in Hong Kong prisons are in Chinese, 10 per cent in English, and the remaining seven per cent in other languages.

The proportion varies by prison. Books in other languages comprise less than 2.7 per cent of the offerings at both Pik Uk Correctional Institution and Tai Lam Centre for Women. That compares with 14.6 per cent at the Lo Wu facility where Ho stayed.

Social welfare lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun said he was told that prison authorities were reluctant to buy books in other languages due to security concerns. Shiu finds the reasoning dubious.

“The Commissioner of Correctional Services [Lam Kwok-leung] told me earlier this year it would not [buy such books] as they did not understand the languages,” he recalled. “They ended up relying on donations from consulates,” he recalled. “This is such a passive attitude, if not just lazy and irresponsible.”

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Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun, vice-chairman of Legco’s security panel, confirmed he heard the same explanation, and has urged the authorities to take a more proactive approach.

“The department could have invited the elders in different communities to form a panel of advisers [for screening books],” he said.

“It’s understandable they might have concerns importing books they don’t understand, but it could never be regarded as a legitimate excuse. You can’t assume there is no one you could trust in the world.”

To also called on the authorities to bring in books of different languages in numbers that are proportionate to inmates’ ethnic background as represented in local prisons.

The Correctional Services Department does not offer a demographic breakdown based on language.

Of the 8,423 inmates in local prisons as of 2017, 5,663 (67 per cent) were from Hong Kong, 1,026 (12 per cent) from the mainland, Taiwan and Macau, and 1,734 (21 per cent) from other countries.

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A department spokeswoman did not address the question of whether the authorities had gone out and bought books in other languages.

But she said it had established a system to obtain appropriate reading material of all languages available in the market every year, adding foreign consulates in the city were consulted for recommendations before the procurement.

“Our library system also allows penal institutions to share their stocks in block loans to suit the reading needs in different languages for persons in custody who are of other nationalities,” she added.