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Human rights

Ease restrictions on prison inmate visits, Society for Community Organisation urges Hong Kong prison officials

NGO says definition of who can visit prisoners is too narrow preventing human rights groups from checking on welfare of those locked up

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 7:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 9:31pm

An NGO on Tuesday called on Hong Kong’s prison authorities to relax visiting rules so that human rights concern groups can visit inmates.

The Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) said it had received several requests for help from prisoners over the years, as well as complaints of human rights violations. 

“We are there to provide psychological support to prisoners, who would also share difficulties they have faced in prison,” the society’s community organiser Annie Lin said, adding that the group would also provide legal advice to prisoners if necessary. 

The Correctional Services Department currently allows only family members or those listed as “friends” of inmates to visit. 

SoCO’s call came as the city’s highest court on Monday cleared two people of conspiracy to defraud charges over prison visits.

Thomas Wan, who owns a company offering visiting services to prisoners on behalf of their family and friends, and his employee Guan Qiaoyong, had been convicted by a lower court of “dishonestly and falsely” representing themselves as friends of prisoners at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre.

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But the five Court of Final Appeal judges agreed the definition of “friends” should be broadened to include a person who had been requested to visit by the prisoner, the prisoner’s relatives or a personal acquaintance; a person who could provide moral or material benefit to the prisoner; and a person who the prisoner was willing to meet. 

Another community organiser with SoCO, Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, said the ruling should provide direction to prison authorities on how to handle visiting arrangements in the future. 

Currently, SoCO staff and volunteers can only visit inmates if they were listed as “friends” on the visitors list.

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The group also suggested improving ways prisoners can have contact with the outside world, including video calls and regular phone calls to relatives and friends.

Lin said that since 2016, Stanley Prison officials rejected about 20 requests by SoCO by prisoners to add SoCO staff and volunteers to visitor lists. 

“We don’t know why there has been a problem with Stanley Prison in the past two years,” Tsoi said. “Was [the prison] unhappy with our work related to the prison?”

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Choi Chuen-sun, who was released from Stanley Prison a few days ago after serving a sentence of more than four years, said he tried to add a volunteer from the society to his visitors list in 2016 but it was refused. But he said he had no problem adding volunteers from another NGO.

“I wanted someone to care about or talk to me, as I didn’t have any relatives in Hong Kong,” Choi said.

The Correctional Services Department maintained it treated all organisations in a fair manner, adding that people who were unsatisfied with its visitation policies could file a complaint.

The department also said it respected the Court of Final Appeal’s judgment, and would study it and consult with the Department of Justice.