Hong Kong’s prisons operator denies opposition allegations it used coronavirus concerns to bar visits with inmates

Chris Lau
·4-min read

Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department (CSD) has hit back at more than 100 opposition figures, accusing them of disregarding facts after they sent a petition to the city’s No 2 alleging the prisons authority had barred them from visiting inmates on the pretext of fighting the pandemic.

In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesman for the department said that, in general, non-urgent official visits had been suspended since July, but that lawmakers and district councillors requesting to see prisoners would still be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“The repeated assertion by council members that the CSD has suspended official visits is not factually correct,” the statement said.

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In a press conference on Tuesday, some of the opposition politicians said they had indeed been granted access to prisoners again this month after a hiatus, but maintained that the department was still treating them unfairly by assigning them inconvenient meeting times and denying them the use of more private facilities enjoyed by others on official visits.

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The latest dust-up between the legislators and the department stems from a rule change limiting visits that was put into place on July 20, around the time Hong Kong’s third wave of Covid-19 infections was cresting.

Since then, however, new cases have largely subsided, with the government in recent weeks easing social-distancing measures.

The improvement in the situation prompted the 144 opposition lawmakers and district councillors to issue a petition to Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung on Monday, questioning whether the Correctional Services Department’s continued restrictions were still appropriate.

“The government has since relaxed its anti-epidemic measures numerous times to strike a balance between the battle against the pandemic and the needs of our daily life. But the Correctional Services Department has yet to review and readjust its decision to suspend official visits. It has led to an increase of cases in which assistance was sought from us,” the petition said.

A view of the Correctional Services Department’s Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, where a clerk tested positive for Covid-19 in July. Photo: Sam Tsang
A view of the Correctional Services Department’s Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, where a clerk tested positive for Covid-19 in July. Photo: Sam Tsang

In his response on Tuesday, a spokesman noted the instability of the pandemic, saying the department “would adjust the guidelines in a timely manner in accordance with the development of the epidemic situation”.

In a press conference on Tuesday, lawmaker for the social welfare sector Shiu Ka-chun acknowledged that in October the department had finally approved his applications to meet seven inmates. However, he said between July 24 and September 24 he had made nine requests to meet a total of 29 others, all of which were denied.

Approached by the Post, the department said it did not keep records on how many applications for visits were made, or how many were ultimately approved.

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Shiu maintained, however, that even after his more recent requests were approved, the department had treated him unfairly by insisting he see the seven inmates in six separate meetings, rather than the two he initially sought.

“No doubt they are trying to increase the cost of us paying visits to these prisoners in order to stop us from coming amid these difficulties,” he said.

Fellow lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a social worker by trade, said he, too, was ultimately given access to the prisoners he needed to see, but he nonetheless took issue with being asked to use facilities intended for family visits.

He maintained that during his recent visits, he noticed lawyers and government officials were still allowed to use the more private venues for official meetings, questioning why he and his colleagues no longer enjoyed the same privilege.

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In its statement before the press conference, the department noted that as a precautionary measure, approved visits under the new rules, whether for family or official purposes, must take place with the inmate behind a partition. It did not mention any change in the facilities specific parties were permitted to use.

“Apart from family and official visits, detained persons are also allowed to communicate with the outside world anytime through writing letters,” the spokesman said.

Last month, a group of opposition figures accused the Correction Services Department of interfering with mail intended for inmates being held in relation to last year’s protests, including refusing to deliver them an annual report from a fund set up to assist those arrested.

The department at the time did not confirm or deny withholding the mail, only saying the law empowered it to intercept, return or destroy letters to inmates if they were deemed to be a threat.

This article Hong Kong’s prisons operator denies opposition allegations it used coronavirus concerns to bar visits with inmates first appeared on South China Morning Post

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