Human rights watch/asia hong kong human rights monitor june 1997 Vol. 9, No. 5 (C) hong kong prison conditions in 1997

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June 1997 Vol. 9, No. 5 (C)


Human Rights Watch/Asia Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

485 Fifth Avenue Room 104, 3 Jupiter Street, Corn Yan Centre

New York, NY 10017-6104 North Point, Hong Kong

Tel: (212) 972-8400 Tel: (852) 2811-4488

Fax: (212) 972-0905 Fax: (852) 2802-6012

E-mail: E-mail:

Sometime before July 1, 1997, the framed portraits of Queen Elizabeth II that decorate the administrative offices of Hong Kong’s prisons will be taken down. A small but symbolic change, like the removal of the crown insignia from prison guards’ uniforms, it represents the end of British colonial rule and the beginning of Hong Kong’s administration as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China.
How Hong Kong will function under Chinese sovereignty and, in particular, how the territory’s prisons will be administered, is not yet clear. Few if any groups are more vulnerable to the impact of political change than prisoners. Given China’s notoriously poor prison conditions and its frequent use of capital punishment, it comes as no surprise that Hong Kong prisoners have already expressed grave apprehensions regarding their treatment under Chinese rule.1
Because of these considerations, Human Rights Watch and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor decided in 1996 to investigate the human rights conditions of the territory’s prisons. The purpose of the investigation was to establish a benchmark of prison conditions prior to the changeover. It was also meant to establish a precedent of independent monitoring of Hong Kong’s prison conditions, to encourage future monitoring. Indeed, our inspections of the territory’s prisons, which took place in March and April 1997, are to our knowledge the first full inspections of the facilities ever conducted by independent nongovernmental organizations.
This report, which is based primarily on information gathered during these inspections, describes and evaluates the treatment of prisoners confined in Hong Kong prisons under the authority of the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department (CSD). It does not address conditions in police holding cells, where prisoners are generally held after arrest and prior to transfer into the prison system. As in other reports published by Human Rights Watch and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, this report assesses the government’s practices with reference to the relevant provisions of international human rights treaties binding on the territory, and to other authoritative international standards, in particular the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Endowed with a healthy economy, high per capita incomes, and a substantial proportion of the world’s trade, Hong Kong has long been renowned for its prosperity and its status as an international financial center. Although colonial rule did not, for many years, permit the development of democratic processes or guarantee sufficient protection for the human rights of the territory’s residents, Britain’s last gasp effort to remedy these defects has been in large part successful.2 At present, Hong Kong residents enjoy a lively if imperfect legislature and a comprehensive Bill of Rights.3 Moreover, to an enviable degree, the territory is free of the social and fiscal pressures that tend to encourage poor prison conditions: it has a low rate of violent crime, a large government budget surplus, and substantial fiscal reserves.

It is far from clear, however, to what extent Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty will alter the territory’s economic, social and political landscape. On paper, the protections against undue Chinese interference are substantial. The 1984 Joint Declaration, a legally binding bilateral treaty registered at the United Nations, declares that the Chinese government will grant Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” and that the territory’s “capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”4 The Basic Law, promulgated by China in 1990 to set out the basic policies governing the territory, codifies the principle of “one country, two systems” and provides that, with the exception of laws relating to defense and foreign affairs, China’s national laws will not apply in Hong Kong.5 Instead, as both documents affirm, the laws in force in Hong Kong prior to its reversion to China will be preserved, subject to later amendment by the territorial legislature, and the “rights and freedoms” enjoyed by Hong Kong’s inhabitants will be maintained.
Besides these formal legal guarantees, observers have speculated that Hong Kong’s economic success provides another, perhaps more potent form of protection against inappropriate Chinese intervention. According to this view, because China’s own economic development is to a large extent dependent on the continued infusion of knowledge, expertise and investment from Hong Kong, China would be reluctant to tamper with Hong Kong’s recipe for success.
Yet recent developments suggest that China believes it can intervene in Hong Kong’s legal and political affairs without affecting its economic prosperity. The Chinese government has decided to disband the elected legislature and replace it with a provisional appointed body, which is expected to tighten controls over political parties and demonstrations, and introduce laws on secession and subversion. Shipping magnate Tung Chee hwa, the chief executive-designate appointed by China, has already initiated an inauspicious series of legislative proposals that would, among other things, restrict peaceful public demonstrations in post-reversion Hong Kong.
These developments raise questions as to the autonomy from China of the future Hong Kong government and whether Hong Kong residents will continue to enjoy the rights and freedoms they do currently. It goes without saying that the territory’s prisons may not be immune from future changes.
Of course, the legal and political ramifications of Hong Kong’s reversion to China are not the only variables that may have an impact on the territory’s prisons. Other important factors include the widening poverty gap and the continuing increase in immigration from mainland Chinese. Although average incomes are high in Hong Kong, the territory’s affluence is unevenly distributed. A 1995 World Bank study showed that while the wealthiest 20 percent of the Hong Kong population enjoy over 50 percent of the territory’s total income, the poorest 20 percent make do with only 4.3 percent of it.6 The poverty gap continues to widen, but the government continues to resist allocating more funds to social welfare programs to benefit the territory’s poor and needy. The growth of an impoverished underclass may, at some point, jeopardize Hong Kong’s low rate of crime.

Increases in illegal Chinese immigration are also particularly relevant, since in 1988 Hong Kong began relying on incarceration as a deterrent for immigration offenses. In 1995, Hong Kong increased the number of Chinese immigrants allowed in the territory from 105 to 150 arrivals per day; however, this increase has been far from sufficient to meet the demand. Despite vigilant police patrols and a high steel fence to mark the border with China, undocumented immigrants arrive daily. Many who are discovered working illegally end up in the prison system. The possibility that such immigration will swell after July 1997, as some observers contend, may have severe consequences for prison overcrowding.


This report is based on inspections of twelve of Hong Kong’s twenty-two penal facilities (excluding police lock-ups and half-way houses) as well as its largest closed detention camp for screened-out Vietnamese migrants. Included among the facilities visited, all of which are operated by the Correctional Services Department (CSD), were two women’s prisons, a psychiatric center, a drug addiction treatment center, and a detention center for juveniles.7 The Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor delegation spent a full day at nearly every prison we visited, viewing the entire facility, including disciplinary segregation units and other segregation areas, the infirmary, the kitchen, the recreation areas, the bathrooms, and, of course, the prisoners’ living quarters. Besides inspecting the facilities, members of the delegation also met Gov. Chris Patten, then in his last hundred days in office, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, former prisoners, prison chaplains, the deputy ombudsman, representatives of unions of prison employees, and numerous high-level CSD staff, including the commissioner of the CSD.

Human Rights Watch normally undertakes prison visits only when its investigators, not the authorities, can choose the institutions to be visited; when the investigators can gain access to the entire facility to be examined; and when the investigators can be confident that they will be allowed to talk privately with inmates of their choice. The purpose of these rules is to avoid being shown model institutions or their most presentable areas, and to avoid speaking to “model prisoners” or prisoners who feel constrained in discussing their treatment. In Hong Kong, however, we were unable to gain access in accordance with the last of these terms: the authorities refused to allow us private conversations with prisoners. Even though this limitation constituted a departure from our usual policy, the delegation decided that inspections of the prisons would still provide us with valuable information that could be supplemented from other sources, and that the importance of conducting as full an investigation as possible at this time weighed in favor of accepting these terms.
Except for this one significant limitation, Hong Kong officials and, in particular, CSD staff, greatly facilitated our investigation. They granted us full and free access to each of the prisons we wished to visit, provided us with helpful documentary and statistical information, and made themselves available for extended meetings. On the whole, it should be emphasized, the investigation benefitted from the cooperation, assistance and responsiveness of the Hong Kong correctional authorities.
International Human Rights Standards Governing the Treatment of Prisoners

The chief international human rights documents applicable in Hong Kong clearly protect the human rights of prisoners. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (hereinafter, the Torture Convention) both prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, without exception or derogation.8 Article 10 of the ICCPR, in addition, mandates that “[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”9 It also requires that “the reform and social readaptation of prisoners” be an “essential aim” of imprisonment.10

Several additional international documents flesh out the human rights of persons deprived of liberty, providing guidance as to how governments may comply with their international legal obligations. The most comprehensive such guidelines are the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (hereinafter, Standard Minimum Rules), adopted by the Economic and Social Council in 1957. It should be noted that although the Standard Minimum Rules are not a treaty, they constitute an authoritative guide to binding treaty standards. Indeed, recognizing the authority of these guidelines with regard to compliance with Article 10 of the ICCPR, the Hong Kong government specifically noted in its fourth periodic report under the ICCPR that the territory’s prison rules “take full account” of the Standard Minimum Rules.11
Other documents relevant to an evaluation of prison conditions include the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, and, with regard to juvenile prisoners, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (known as the “Beijing Rules”). Like the SMRs, these instruments are binding on governments to the extent that the norms set out in them explicate the broader standards contained in human rights treaties.
These documents clearly reaffirm the tenet that prisoners retain fundamental human rights. As the most recent of these documents, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, declares:
Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, where the State concerned is a party, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol thereto, as well as such other rights as are set out in other United Nations covenants.12
Endorsing this philosophy in 1992, the United Nations Human Rights Committee explained that states have “a positive obligation toward persons who are particularly vulnerable because of their status as persons deprived of liberty” and stated:
[N]ot only may persons deprived of their liberty not be subjected to [torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment], including medical or scientific experimentation, but neither may they be subjected to any hardship or constraint other than that resulting from the deprivation of liberty; respect for the dignity of such persons must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons. Persons deprived of their liberty enjoy all the rights set forth in the [ICCPR], subject to the restrictions that are unavoidable in a closed environment.13

It should be noted, however, that on ratifying the ICCPR the United Kingdom entered a reservation stating that prisoners would still be subject to those laws and procedures deemed necessary for “the preservation of . . . custodial discipline.” This reservation was later echoed in the Hong Kong’s 1991 Bill of Rights Ordinance, the legislation which incorporated the protections of the ICCPR into Hong Kong’s local law.14 Notably, no such reservation was entered with respect to the Torture Convention.

The application of the ICCPR in Hong Kong after its reversion to China is complicated by the fact that China is not a party to the treaty.15 Nonetheless, the Sino-British Joint Declaration states that the provisions of ICCPR will remain in force in Hong Kong after the territory’s reversion to China.16 The U.N. Human Rights Committee, commenting on the treaty’s future application in the territory, has stated that human rights treaties devolve with territory and that, in particular, the people of Hong Kong will continue to be protected under the ICCPR after July 1, 1997.17

While showing the strains of overcrowding and, in some facilities, understaffing, the Hong Kong prison system has much to recommend it. To begin with, the territory’s prisons are administered by an extremely competent and professional corps of correctional officers. Under their vigilance, the prisons are relatively safe and secure, and serious physical violence is a rare occurrence. The physical infrastructure of the prison system is, with the exception of a couple of facilities, in very good shape. The Prison Rules that regulate the operation of the prisons, particularly after their recent amendment, reflect a healthy concern for prisoners’ fundamental rights: among other provisions, they do not allow corporal punishment; they carefully limit the use of mechanical restraints, and they specifically enumerate the types of conduct that constitute disciplinary offenses and the ways in which such offenses may be punished.
The Prison Rules set high aspirations for the prisons’ operation. They declare, as a guiding precept, that prison officers should “be firm in maintaining order and discipline,” while, at the same time, treating prisoners “with kindness and humanity.” The high degree of order and regimentation that the Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor observed in Hong Kong’s penal institutions leaves no doubt that the first injunction is obeyed. It is largely with regard to the second rule—which, stated in the broader terms of international human rights norms, means that a prison system should accord due respect for the dignity and humanity of the persons confined within it—that the delegation had some concerns.
With respect to a few important factors, the Hong Kong prison system is less than exemplary, even though it is generally in compliance with international standards. Overcrowding, which is a problem now and, according to official estimates, will be continue to be problem for the foreseeable future, has stretched the system’s resources. Cells that were designed for one prisoner often hold two, and, during times of particularly high congestion, even three prisoners. Dormitories are crowded.
Even though the Hong Kong prison system does a generally good job of keeping inmates occupied, overcrowding means that activities are fewer and less meaningful. Cotton ball and envelope-making, for example, tasks that the delegation observed in several facilities, hardly equip inmates with the skills necessary to find employment upon release. The combination of greater overcrowding and less meaningful ways of passing the time also aggravates the tensions which result in outbursts of inmate-on-inmate violence.
These strains are particularly evident with regard to unconvicted prisoners—prisoners who are presumed innocent and are supposed to be treated as such. In particular, the unremitting idleness of such prisoners, a problem that the delegation observed in every facility that houses them, is of serious concern.
The prison system’s focus on discipline and control, which may even be exacerbated under the pressures of overcrowding, is not an unmitigated blessing. On the positive side, the whole of the prisons, including prisoners’ living areas, are exceptionally clean and orderly. The generally good standards of sanitation and hygiene (except for a couple of facilities that lack in-cell toilets) manifest a respect for prisoners’ dignity and self-worth. On the other hand, prisoners enjoy little privacy and few opportunities for personal expression. Because of a series of restrictions on personal items and their use, the living accommodations are rather sterile.
More importantly, the prison system still maintains unnecessarily stringent controls over inmates’ contacts with the outside world. Among their adverse effects, these restrictions bode poorly for prisoners’ future readjustment back into society, when they will need the social connection of family and friends. For many prisoners, visits are too infrequent and too short. Moreover, prisoners in higher security facilities, who are only allowed “closed” visits, are separated from their visitors by a plexiglass barrier and must speak to them via a telephone/intercom system. The resulting ban on all personal contact does have the intended effect of keeping out drugs and other contraband, which are at the root of many serious problems in other prison systems, but it exacts a high cost, particularly in relations between parents and their children.
Another obstacle to the maintenance of good family relations is the lack of regular access to telephones. This is a particularly important issue for foreign prisoners—who are numerous in Hong Kong—and for those whose family members, because of illness, old age, or other reasons, cannot easily travel to the prisons.
Fortunately, some restrictions on prisoners’ contacts with outsiders have been greatly relaxed in the past few years. Most recently, in a detailed set of amendments, improvements with regard to prisoners’ correspondence and the censorship of incoming materials were formally incorporated into the Prison Rules. Among other reforms, prisoners can now write unlimited letters and can contact representatives of the media and outside organizations.
These are welcome developments, raising hopes that other similar improvements will be instituted in the future. But even now, it should be emphasized, the Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor delegation was favorably impressed with the functioning of Hong Kong’s penal facilities. The filth, corruption, extreme violence, lack of adequate food and medical care, and corporal punishments that afflict the great majority of the world’s prisoners are not an issue in the Hong Kong prison system. The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners are, to a notable degree, respected.
Unfortunately, the generally good conditions and treatment that characterize the territory’s penal facilities were not, in the view of the delegation, equally in evidence at the High Island Detention Centre, a closed camp for Vietnamese asylum-seekers. The prison authorities emphasized to the delegation that Vietnamese detainees are not treated like ordinary prisoners: they are not subject to prison discipline; they are not made to work, and they are allowed to live in mixed-sex family groups. Other aspects of the distinction drawn between the Vietnamese and persons held for penal reasons are, however, less defensible. In contrast to the excellent maintenance of most prisons, the High Island camp was in serious need of repairs. Many mechanical objects were broken and, most notably, the sanitary facilities—located in filthy, smelly, dark, and bug-infested shipping containers—were barely functioning.
The problems at High Island, as well as the inevitable uncertainty about future changes, militate in favor of establishing an inspectorate charged with providing outside oversight of conditions in Hong Kong’s penal and detention facilities. Although there is a superficial profusion of prison monitoring bodies in the territory—including the CSD’s internal bodies, visiting justices of the peace, and the ombudsman—the protection provided by these bodies is incomplete. At present, there is no group or institution with full and unrestricted access to the prisons that has the freedom to criticize and, if necessary, to draw public attention to abuses. Because of the pressing need for transparency and accountability in the operation of prisons, an inspectorate would be a great asset to the prison system.

Steps should be taken to ease overcrowding throughout the prison system.

Following the model of the United Kingdom, the Hong Kong government should establish an independent prisons inspectorate with a broad mandate to investigate conditions in the territory’s penal facilities; report its findings to the responsible governmental authorities, to the legislature, and to the public; and make recommendations for reform.
As is common in prisons around the world, remand prisoners in Hong Kong are subject to the worst conditions. The CSD should take immediate steps to improve their treatment by alleviating overcrowding at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre and at Tai Lam Centre for Women, by allowing prisoners out of their day rooms more frequently, and by making greater work, recreational and educational opportunities available to them.
The Hong Kong government should take immediate steps to improve the conditions of its Vietnamese detention centers.

The CSD should increase the numbers of security staff in several facilities, including Lai Chi Kok and Pik Uk Correctional Institution.

The CSD should take urgent steps to recruit and train the necessary quota of psychiatric nurses to staff Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre. In the meantime, it should employ its existing staff resources more effectively by assigning all qualified nurses to nursing rather than non-nursing duties.
The CSD should take care to ensure that administrative segregation under Prison Rule 68B is not employed as a punitive measure. Greater due process safeguards in the application of Rule 68B should be instituted, particularly in cases of long-term involuntary segregation.
Consistent with the practice in other highly industrialized countries, the CSD should expand prisoners’ access to telephones by installing telephones in areas accessible to prisoners and establishing appropriate rules for their use. A telephone conversation should not, however, be counted as a visit.
The CSD should routinely allow prisoners—especially prisoners whose relatives must travel long distances to see them, or whose relatives, because of age or disability, have difficulty traveling—visits of at least an hour.
The CSD should expand its use of open visits. In particular, prisoners who have not been found guilty of engaging in contraband smuggling or in drug use within the prison should, subject to appropriate security rules, routinely be granted open visits.
Qualified outsiders, including academics, members of the media, and representatives of human rights organizations should be allowed to inspect the prisons and to interview prisoners out of the earshot of guards.
Because prisoners’ ability to find work upon release into the community is an important determinant of their likelihood to commit future crimes, the CSD should take greater care to provide work opportunities that help prisoners gain marketable skills.
Because education is a key ingredient of rehabilitation, the CSD should expand the educational opportunities provided to adult prisoners.
In order to provide Hong Kong prisoners with a much needed outlet for self-expression, the CSD should offer a program of arts and crafts in the prisons.
The CSD should make its unpublished Standing Orders easily available on request. Only those Standing Orders whose dissemination could reasonably be deemed a threat to prison security should be exempted from this general rule.
In accordance with the Standard Minimum Rules and with the more general notion that remand prisoners should be treated in a manner reflecting their unconvicted status, the CSD should allow unconvicted prisoners to wear their own clothing.
Because sexual contact between prisoners is likely to occur in any prison system, the CSD should consider distributing condoms to prisoners.
In order to lessen the adverse effect of imprisonment on family relations, the CSD should consider establishing a system of conjugal visits.

The Hong Kong prison system held 12,302 prisoners as of March 27, 1997. With a prisoner-to-population ratio of about 200 per 100,000, Hong Kong has a higher rate of incarceration than found in the United Kingdom, the colonial power that established the territory’s prison system, and a relatively high rate for Asia.18
Hong Kong’s twenty-two penal facilities, which are administered by the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department (CSD), have a total certified capacity of 10,442 inmates. These facilities include adult prisons—minimum, medium and maximum security—juvenile institutions, a remand facility for male prisoners awaiting trial, a psychiatric center, and mandatory drug addiction treatment centers.19 Some facilities serve more than one purpose. Although the prison population is unevenly distributed among them, more than half of these institutions are overcrowded.
Besides operating Hong Kong’s penal facilities, the CSD is also responsible for managing detention centers for Vietnamese migrants. For many years, the population of these camps far outnumbered the penal population, threatening to overwhelm the CSD’s staff resources.20 However, with the vigorous implementation of Hong Kong’s repatriation program, the number of Vietnamese held in these camps has shrunk dramatically.
Relevant Laws and Regulations

Several pieces of legislation regulate the CSD’s operation of the territory’s penal facilities: the Prisons Ordinance (Cap. 234), the Detention Centres Ordinance (Cap. 239), the Training Centres Ordinance (Cap. 280), and the Drug Addiction Treatment Centres Ordinance (Cap. 244). As their names suggest, these laws correspond to the various types of facilities that make up the Hong Kong correctional system. Statutory authorization for the detention of Vietnamese migrants is found in the Immigration Ordinance (Cap. 115).

The Prisons Ordinance, originally enacted in 1954 but amended numerous times since, is the oldest of these laws. Its provides the basis for the Prison Rules, a much more detailed set of provisions that was also enacted in 1954 but that has since been amended dozens of times.21 Together, these documents set out the basic groundrules of Hong Kong’s correctional system. The other ordinances, and their subsidiary regulations, include additional provisions tailored to the institutions under their purview; otherwise they largely incorporate the Prisons Ordinance and the Prison Rules.22
At the time of the visit to Hong Kong of the Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor delegation, an important set of amendments to the Prison Rules was being negotiated by the Legislative Council (Legco) and the CSD. The amendments, which passed in May 1997, loosened restrictions on prisoners’ exercise of several rights.23 They included, for example, important reforms regarding prisoners’ right to communicate with the outside world. The stated purpose of the amendments was to “ensure that the Prison Rules are consistent with the Bill of Rights Ordinance.”24
Besides the applicable rules and ordinances, which are published documents, the CSD has also promulgated numerous unpublished Standing Orders to govern the management of the territory’s penal facilities. These have in some instances been difficult for prisoners to obtain, leaving them ignorant about policies that may affect their lives in significant ways.25 Finally, within each individual institution, internal rules and policies may apply.26
The Prison Population

The vast majority of Hong Kong prisoners are ethnic Chinese, and an increasingly large number of them are from mainland China. In their interviews with the Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor delegation, the Hong Kong prison authorities consistently attributed the territory’s prison overcrowding to the illegal Chinese immigrant population. (In Hong Kong, such persons are universally referred to as IIs.) Indeed, mainland Chinese constitute some 20 percent of the prison population, approximating the level of overcrowding, although it seems somewhat arbitrary to blame them for overcrowding, instead of the much larger numbers of local prisoners.

Because they are deported back to China immediately after they have served their criminal sentences, making post-release supervision impossible, prisoners from mainland China are ineligible for several alternative confinement regimes offered to local prisoners. Specifically, they are barred from the drug addiction treatment program, the training center program, and the detention center program (described below). These programs place strong emphasis on rehabilitation while the training center program, in addition, stresses the acquisition of useful skills; the disqualification of mainland Chinese is thus to their detriment.
Besides mainland Chinese, there are some 800 foreign prisoners in Hong Kong. The largest nationalities represented are the Vietnamese, Filipinos, Pakistanis, and Thais. As of March 27, 1997, they were 365, 230, sixty-six, and forty prisoners, respectively, from these countries. The Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor delegation also met prisoners from Australia, Colombia, Great Britain, Ireland, and Nigeria.
Unconvicted inmates (those awaiting trial or in the midst of trial proceedings) make up a small minority of the Hong Kong prison population.27
Although their exact proportion is unclear, sizeable numbers of prisoners enter the system with drug problems.28 In addition, many prisoners are affiliated with Hong Kong’s criminal gangs, known as triads. Although official statistics are more conservative, former prisoners have stated that the large majority of male prisoners are triad members.29 While the CSD acknowledges that it cannot stop prisoners from belonging to triads, it claims to have succeeded in controlling the triads’ influence within the prison system.
Juveniles may enter the penal system as young as age fourteen. As in most prison systems, the large majority of prisoners are males between twenty and forty.30

Persons sentenced to imprisonment receive fixed sentences that are normally subject to up to one-third remission for good behavior. In addition, a Release Under Supervision scheme was instituted in 1988, allowing certain prisoners to serve even less of their sentences.

Persons sentenced to drug addiction treatment centers, training centers, or detention centers—alternative sentencing options within the discretion of the court in many cases—receive partially indeterminant sentences followed by mandatory terms of post-release supervision. Drug addiction treatment centers hold inmates from two to twelve months. Training centers hold inmates from six months to three years. Detention centers hold inmates who are between fourteen and twenty years old from one month to six months, and hold those who are between twenty-one and twenty-four years old from three months to twelve months.
Prisoner Classification and the Various Types of Institutions

Hong Kong’s prisons follow strict inmate classification rules. Prisoners are separated according to sex, age, security level, and status as sentenced or unsentenced prisoners, among other things. They are also divided into categories, ranging from A to D, based primarily on the seriousness of their crimes. (Murder and other very serious crimes, mostly those punishable with at least twelve years’ imprisonment, place prisoners in category A; minor offenses carrying less than six months’ imprisonment land them in category D.) Category A prisoners are generally separated from other categories of prisoners. Finally, sentenced prisoners are either classified as “star prisoners”—first offenders—or “ordinary prisoners”—recidivists.

These segregation rules comply with international standards, which require the separation of men and women, of juveniles and adults, and of sentenced and unsentenced prisoners.31

Adult male inmates are held in ten prisons, a remand facility and a psychiatric center. The remand facility, the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, is convenient to the Hong Kong courts. Besides unsentenced prisoners, Lai Chi Kok also holds a small number of prisoners appealing their convictions or their sentences, and newly convicted prisoners pending transfer to other institutions.

Hong Kong’s two maximum security men’s prisons are Stanley Prison, built in 1937, and Shek Pik Prison. Stanley, the territory’s largest facility, holds prisoners serving life or long term sentences, most of whom are classified as ordinary prisoners. Shek Pik, which holds mostly star prisoners, was originally designed to hold only Category A (maximum security) prisoners; because of overcrowding, however, it now holds over 500 Category B and Category C prisoners as well.
In addition, four medium security institutions and four minimum security institutions house adult male prisoners.32 Victoria Prison, one of the medium security facilities, presently serves the rather unusual purpose of housing short-term detainees awaiting deportation back to their home countries.33 Ma Hang Prison, one of the minimum security institutions, includes a section restricted to elderly prisoners, generally those over the age of sixty. In addition to these facilities, Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre, a maximum security institution, houses mentally ill prisoners, as well as certain protected witnesses and prisoners considered a threat to the orderly functioning of other institutions. Male drug addicts are held at the Hei Ling Chau Addiction Treatment Centre, which includes a separate section for those under twenty-one.
Besides those in the drug addiction program at Hei Ling Chau, young male offenders are divided among juvenile prisons, training centers, and a detention center. These are Cape Collinson Correctional Institution, Lai Sun Correctional Institution, Pik Uk Correctional Institution, Lai King Training Centre, and Sha Tsui Detention Centre.
There are four institutions for women prisoners. Tai Lam Centre for Women, which has a maximum security rating, functions as a remand facility and a prison for adult women. Chi Ma Wan Correctional Institution on Lantau Island is a medium security prison for female adult prisoners. Adjacent to it is the Chi Ma Wan Treatment Centre, a drug addition treatment center for women. Tai Tam Gap Correctional Institution houses young female offenders under the age of twenty-one. It includes separate living areas for training center inmates, drug addiction treatment center inmates, young prisoners and girls on remand. Female inmates requiring psychiatric assessment or treatment are detained in the women’s unit of Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre.
Vietnamese Detention Camps34

The largest remaining “closed camp” for Vietnamese migrants is the High Island Detention Centre, which houses persons whose applications for refugee status have previously been rejected.35 Many of the detainees confined at High Island have been confined for several years, some since June 1998.

The Hong Kong government’s official position is that everyone in detention should return to Vietnam, and it is actively enforcing a mandatory repatriation program that offers partial assurance against persecution by the Vietnamese government, as well as reintegration assistance.36 When the Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor delegation met Gov. Chris Patten, in fact, he stated that by July 1997 there should be only a few hundred ethnic Chinese, whom Vietnam refuses to accept, left in detention.37 Other estimates, however, are larger.38
Although the closed camps are governed by the Immigration Ordinance rather than the Prisons Ordinance, they are in many ways comparable to prisons. Most fundamentally, detainees cannot leave the camps: they live confined within high double walls topped with barbed wire.
Within the facilities, however, detainees live in family groups—men, women, and children intermingled—and, rather than being locked in cells, are free to circulate around within the living areas and the large outside yards. Detainees are not subject to prison discipline; indeed, the prison authorities insist that “they are treated as ordinary citizens.”39

CSD Staff

With over 7,000 staff, nearly 4,000 of whom are custodial staff working in the prisons, the CSD approaches the size of the prison population it manages. It is a quasi-military force, with uniforms, ranks, and military discipline.

Unlike the military, however, the only weapons that CSD officers carry are wooden batons, and these are only carried in the men’s prisons. All prison staff wear name tags.
CSD custodial staff are trained at the CSD’s Staff Training Institute before commencing their duties in the penal system. Officers and assistant officers undergo a twenty-six week and twenty-three week recruit training course, respectively, which cover self-defense, first aid, counseling, and management skills, among other things, and include field placement to prisons. The “temporary staff” hired to accommodate the increased need for CSD personnel in the Vietnamese detention camps receive two weeks’ training regarding the “basic know-how” needed for working in those facilities.40

CSD officers working in contact positions in the penal facilities are of the same sex as the prisoners under their authority.41

Overcrowding is placing a heavy burden on Hong Kong’s penal institutions. The majority of the territory’s prisons have exceeded their certified capacities, some by a substantial margin. Yet, despite the strains caused by overcrowding, the facilities generally meet minimum international standards. Indeed, with regard to several important factors, including physical maintenance, cleanliness, and the provision of food, their performance is impressive. The good conditions in the prisons, however, contrast strikingly with the poor conditions found in the closed camps for Vietnamese refugees.
Conditions of Penal Facilities

Consistent with the preference expressed in the Standard Minimum Rules, most of Hong Kong’s penal facilities house fewer than 500 prisoners.42 While there are still several facilities housing between 500 and 1,000 prisoners, only two facilities—Lai Chi Kok Reception Center and Stanley Prison—house more than 1,000 prisoners.


The Hong Kong prison population has risen substantially in the past decade, going from 8,361 inmates in 1987 to its current population of over 12,000.43 At the time of the visit of the Human Rights Watch/Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor delegation, the prisons held 18 percent more prisoners than they were certified to hold, while at some points within the past two years they have been up to 37 percent overcrowded. It should noted as well that normally prisons filled at 100 percent of capacity are overcrowded because, in practice, at any given time some cells are under repair, or are used for storage, or are unavailable for other reasons.44

Because of overcrowding, many cells designed for one prisoner now hold two and in some cases three prisoners. Dormitories are also crowded, with bunk beds pushed close together in many institutions.
Three new penal facilities are currently under construction. All of these will hold male Category C and Category D prisoners (those convicted of less serious offenses).45 Their total capacity will be 832 prisoners, insufficient to remedy the existing deficit, and far less than necessary to cope with the numbers of future prisoners that are expected. According to estimates provided by the CSD, the Hong Kong prison population is predicted to reach 15,000 by the year 2000, putting the prisons at 27 percent over planned capacity.46
Cells and Dormitories

Hong Kong prisons employ both cellular and dormitory accommodations. Cells are mostly found in men’s maximum security facilities, while the remainder of Hong Kong’s prisons have dormitories.47 Cells generally range in size from sixty to ninety square feet. Except for cells holding male Category A prisoners—who, because of their greater perceived dangerousness, are always held in individual cells—they often hold more than one prisoner. Cells in newer facilities such as Shek Pik have barred fronts, providing an unobstructed view of the interior, while those in older facilities such as Stanley have solid front walls interrupted by barred doors or by solid doors with barred openings. The dormitories are of various sizes and generally hold between ten and sixty prisoners.

Cells and dormitories, like the prisons generally, are exceptionally clean and orderly. Due to strict controls, clutter is almost non-existent. This is particularly true in dormitories, where prisoners’ few personal belongings are kept locked away in cubbyholes. Personal belongings are somewhat more in evidence in cells, particularly at Shek Pik, but they are still surprisingly sparse and very tidily arranged. Televisions are not allowed in the living areas, although radios and cassette players are (for use with headphones). Overall, there are strict limits on the number and type of personal items a prisoner may keep in his cell, and in no prison are inmates allowed to attach posters or other decorations to the walls of their living areas. Because of such restrictions, the living accommodations are on the whole rather impersonal. Particularly in the dormitory accommodations, inmates have little if any opportunity for privacy or personal expression.
Cell furniture is standardized. Dormitories are generally furnished with rows of metal-framed bunk beds, a set of cubbyholes for prisoners’ belongings, and little if anything else. Cells have a more complete set of furnishings, all of which are generally made of molded white fiberglass. A typical cell holds two low beds, a very small triangular-shaped table, and a stool with no back support.
Most cells and dormitories include sinks and toilets, either of the sit-down or hole-in-the-floor variety. However, Hong Kong’s two oldest prisons—Stanley and Victoria—lack in-cell toilets, forcing prisoners into the unpleasant alternative of defecating in buckets. With many prisoners being double-celled and locked in their cells from mid-evening until early morning, two prisoners are often forced to spend many hours with a foul stench in an extremely confined space. In Stanley Prison, at least, this state of affairs will not last much longer: the facility is currently undergoing comprehensive renovation and have a toilet installed in each cell before the end of 1998.48 Such renovations are unfortunately not an option for Victoria Prison; it is registered as a historical monument, and the addition of toilets would entail impermissible structural alterations to its buildings.49
Particularly in cells holding more than one prisoner, the use of buckets as a substitute for adequate sanitary facilities—as was done until recently in some prisons in England—violates the Standard Minimum Rules. In particular, it is inconsistent with the requirement that sanitary facilities “be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner.”50
Cells used for disciplinary and administrative segregation generally contain the same furnishings as other cells. At Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, the beds are taken out of such cells during the day to prevent prisoners from lying down on them.
Hong Kong becomes very hot and humid in the summer, and fairly cold in the winter. Nonetheless, prisoners’ living accommodations are not well protected from extremes in temperature. Most living areas are equipped with fans and nothing else: no heating in the winter and no air conditioning in the summer (this is also typical of many homes in Hong Kong). The delegation only found air conditioning and heating installed in prison infirmaries and in computer workshops. Prisons using cells are generally equipped with fans in the corridors along the cells, although Stanley Prison does not even have this basic concession to prisoners’ comfort. During the winter, prisoners are supplied with extra blankets, to a maximum of five.

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