Hong Kong’s correctional services should improve living conditions for inmates and the system for making complaints before investing in so-called smart prisons, a human rights group says.
The Society for Community Organisation made the call for prison reforms on Monday as it released its annual report on the findings of more than 100 complaints or requests for help it received this year.
SoCO community organiser Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong said prisoners who were unfairly treated avoided airing their grievances because of a lack of an independent complaints system.
Rather than focusing on smart prisons – the Correctional Services Department’s plan to modernise its facilities with new technologies including facial recognition systems – Tsoi said the authorities should also first bring inmates’ living conditions and dietary arrangements up to standard.
The department runs 28 correctional facilities, from maximum-security jails to addiction treatment centres on an outlying island. About 8,000 people were in detention between 2016 and 2018, including more than 6,000 prisoners.
Summing up this year’s report, Tsoi said: “Compared to 2018, the whole correctional services system has not improved.”
The most pressing need was for an independent system that would allow prisoners to speak up without undue fear, he said.
The human rights advocate said that when prisoners made a complaint, they had to do so through prison officers, whose colleagues might be the subject of the grievance. The complainant therefore risked retaliation, from disciplinary action including solitary confinement to having benefits cuts, he said.
The department also carried out any investigation of the complaint.
“Basically, they are probing their own,” Tsoi said, giving reasons prisoners would rather keep mum or even withdraw their complaints after filing them.
In 2018, a total of 340 complaints were made, most of which were based on inappropriate behaviour by prison officers. Just two were found proven true, he said.
While prisoners could also take their problems to a Justice of the Peace (JP), usually a distinguished figure appointed by the government, who would visit prisons from time to time to check on conditions, he said, the arrangement sounded better in theory than in practice.
He said those hoping to lodge a complaint with a JP would still be required to first notify prison officers. And the JP, who has no investigative power, would eventually pass the case back to the department.
Other recommendations the group put forward included improving hygiene, shower facilities, food arrangements and better access to lawyers.
“If the prison environment is still really bad, including the food and hygiene … while you are investing in smart prisons, can it really help those who are in jail?” Tsoi asked.
He said the smart prisons plan might raise privacy concerns, noting that the department had yet to publish guidelines for scrutiny. He also said the upgrades seemed to focus on convenience for prison officers rather than increasing prisoners’ rights and helping them rehabilitate.
A spokesman for the department said it valued all complaints. He said the complaints investigation unit operated independently and each issue was treated fairly.
Complainants could also file an appeal to a board comprised of 24 JPs and other religious figures.
The complaint mechanism was appropriate and effective, he said.
The spokesman also said that as part of the plan to modernise prisons, tablets would be provided to inmates for learning purposes while digital communications with the outside world would be enhanced. Some measures had been put in place at certain facilities for a trial.
In building the smart prison, he said, the department had considered relevant laws and guidelines issued by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data.