This week, PRI’s Policy Director, Andrea Huber, attended an international conference in Hong Kong and visited Lo Wu Correctional Institution, a newly built women’s prison near the border with the Chinese mainland.
Participants were very complimentary about the international conference organised by Dui Hua Foundation, in cooperation with Hong Kong University and Renmin University in Hong Kong from 24 to 27 February, and indeed it was one of a kind.
On the first day, speakers from a broad range of countries laid out the issues, challenges and necessary policies with regard to women offenders and prisoners. The result was an unusually comprehensive, concrete and compelling overview. If day one was stimulating, day two was even more so. It was dedicated to the East Asia region, with extraordinary presentations by speakers from China, and its Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong.
This was the first time PRI had come to China/Hong Kong, and we were proud to act as the international partner of this symposium, which will hopefully spark some reforms.
After the official part of the conference, we benefited from the insider knowledge of our board member, Anthony Tang. We could see for ourselves initiatives related to the rehabilitation of women offenders and visited half-way houses for (former) women prisoners run by the Society for Rehabilitation of Offenders. While it was depressing that the Society appears to be the only institution ready to take in offenders with mental health problems in its dedicated half-way house, much more uplifting was the dedication and commitment of its staff and the relationship they had obviously managed to build with the residents.
The last item on the conference agenda was a visit to Lo Wu Correctional Institution in which at the time some 1,200 women were held in one minimum security and two medium security wings. The prison is newly built, opening only in 2010.
Hong Kong has 29 correctional institutions, including three half-way houses, accommodating some 9,100 people in custody. The Correctional Service Department (CSD) reports that it has 6,807 staff and also runs a ‘community-based supervision service’ with around 2,300 persons under ‘active supervision’.
At Lo Wu, we were welcomed by the prison administration, and the Superintendent himself led the group through part of the facilities after showing us two videos on the Hong Kong penitentiary system as an introduction.
The video we were shown on the correctional ‘philosophy’ certainly used all the ‘right’ terminology penal reformers are eager to hear. There was an unambiguous emphasis on rehabilitation and modern prison management instead of a punitive culture, and the prison claims to have implemented the UN Bangkok Rules.
But I couldn’t help but think that more than anything the prison is about discipline and order.
Of course, I am not in a position to judge: after two short videos and a ‘tour’ of only an hour my observations are rudimentary. But the first impression of the atmosphere in an institution is often telling.
The women in the workshops, where we were told they work six days a week for some eight to 10 hours, producing garments for example, were sitting quietly in orderly fashion.
A colleague from South Asia remarked in perplexity that the women in the workshops did not exchange a single word. “Why don’t they chat as they work? Women in Asia love to chat!”
Apparently the women prisoners were not allowed to talk during their working day. They stood up all at once, in response to a sign by the Superintendent, a little reminiscent of a salute. In one of the videos, we’d also seen the prisoners marching, orderly, military style.
If we didn’t misunderstand each other, phone calls to family or friends are an exception in particularly well reasoned cases. This struck us, as that morning we had discussed the importance of family contact, in particular for women prisoners, in terms of their mental health and their successful rehabilitation.
However, at the same time the prison has set up a psycho-social and psychiatric service for women prisoners. The higher prevalence of mental health issues with women prisoners and the increased risk of self-harm and suicide has been understood, even though only two psychiatrists have to support some 1,200 women prisoners.
Leaving Lo Wu Correctional Institution, I am not quite sure what to think. The prison is modern and clean, it is not overcrowded and the prisoners seem to at least be able to engage in meaningful activity. This is the opposite of the unhygienic hellholes where prisoners sleep in shifts.
However, I cannot help but feel that while the prison is not only modern and clean, it might also be described as ‘sterile’. It so little resembles an actual human, social community that I could not help but wonder whether it is conducive to effective rehabilitation and reintegration.
The visit, to me was a sobering illustration of the fact that you can’t ‘order’ the change from a punitive to a rehabilitative penitentiary system from the top down, but this requires a paradigm shift that seeps into the system agonisingly slowly. The Hong Kong Correctional Service Department have certainly made a huge step forward. They have seen that a new approach is needed and have started to put the wheels in motion.