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Human rights

I didn’t get a day off from prison kitchen for 5 months, says former Hong Kong inmate who claims human rights were breached

Lawmakers renew calls for an independent council to be set up to review and monitor operation of prisons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 10:32am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 10:32am

A former convict’s complaints that he was made to work five months straight while behind bars have prompted Hong Kong lawmakers to renew calls for an independent body to review the city’s prisons.

The man surnamed Chan (not his real name) said he spent every day in the kitchen of a correctional institution despite inmates being entitled to a day off every week. He further claimed there was an “unwritten rule” that those assigned to cooking and cleaning details did not get a day off.

Chan filed his case with the complaints investigation unit (CIU) of the Correctional Services Department and even reported the matter to the commissioner. But he said the only thing he received was a letter saying his complaint had been referred to the prison’s management.

The middle-aged Hongkonger, who was in Pak Sha Wan Correctional Institution from May to November last year, was assigned to work in the kitchen from May to mid-September.

Recounting his daily routine to the Post, Chan said those on early shifts started work at 5.30am to prepare the prisoners’ breakfast – boiled vegetables and meat. With two breaks during the day, they finished their duties after dinner at 6.30pm.

Hong Kong’s prison system explained

“I did not have a single day off during my shifts in the kitchen. Not only me, all those assigned to the kitchen and to clean the canteen never enjoyed a day off,” Chan said, adding that those who had jobs in workshops got a rest day as their instructors had Sundays off.

The law states that no work should be done beyond what was strictly necessary on Sundays and important festivals. The department, which declined to comment on individual cases, said those in custody who worked in the kitchen would “have their weekly rest day by rotation”.

But Chan claimed he saw kitchen instructors every day falsely mark a few of the 24-man crew as being “on rest day” in the log book.

After filing a formal complaint with the CIU, Chan said different officers urged him to drop the case.

A high-ranking officer, Chan said, joked that the wage involved was so small he could give him the money when he was released. Earning just HK$600 (US$77) for the job, Chan said the issue was not about the compensation for working extra hours.

“The money is nothing much. But why was I deprived of my rights? [The officers] did not ask whether I was willing to work overtime,” Chan said. “This is about human rights.”

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Another prison officer attempted to intimidate him, asking: “Are you so sure you will never come back [to prison]?”

Chan said that was a common tactic as many former inmates ended back in prison, and they dared not complain as officers could make life tough for them. He even raised his hand and complained to Commissioner of Correctional Services Lam Kwok-leung when he patrolled the prison. Lam referred him to the CIU.

After meeting the CIU in October last year, he received a letter from Lam, which he showed to the Post. As his complaint involved the “internal operation” of one institution, it was transferred to the management there, it said.

A year passed and Chan said he heard nothing more from the department.

Lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, who was assisting Chan, said the case showed the collapse of the complaints system.

“Many prisoners are under the shadow of fear of re-entering prison again and dare not file complaints. And the percentage of complaints ruled as valid is as low as 2.4 per cent,” Shiu said, noting that there were only 123 cases entailing CIU investigation in 2017, for a penal population of 8,500. And only three of them were “substantiated”.

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Shiu and lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung reiterated calls for an independent council to review the complaints and reform the mechanism.

In response, the department said the CIU would refer complaints of a minor nature and related to daily operational matters to the institutional management concerned, which would tell the complainant of the progress.

If the case could not be resolved, it said the CIU would conduct an investigation in a fair, impartial and thorough manner and submit its findings to a committee for endorsement. If the complainant was not satisfied, he or she could lodge an appeal to the appeals board which comprised 18 justices of the peace and religious persons.