South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li rightly noted in June that the Correctional Services Department has “earned the respect and confidence of the community”. It has done much to promote criminal justice in Hong Kong, not just by removing criminals from society but also by rehabilitating them.
As of September 30, there were 8,786 persons in the custody of the department – 7,060 of them convicted of offences, and the rest being held on remand, pending trial. Its correctional facilities include not only prisons but also centres for drug addiction treatment, training, detention and rehabilitation, and a psychiatric centre.
The overall prison population, which stood at 10,073 in 2010, had fallen to 8,438 by the end of 2015. Although this is due in part to the courts making greater use of alternatives to imprisonment, such as community sentencing, it also reflects lower recidivism rates, for which the department can take credit.
Recidivism, or readmissions to correctional services institutions within two years of discharge, fell from 36.5 per cent in 2004 to 27.1 per cent in 2013. The department places great emphasis on rehabilitating offenders, but also liaises with NGOs to ensure inmates have a smooth transition back into the community.
While in custody, inmates are not only taught specific skills, such as IT, carpentry and metal work, but are also encouraged to enrol in study courses , with some even achieving master’s degrees from the Open University of Hong Kong. For inmates due to be released shortly, the department recently arranged a job fair and also organises market-oriented vocational training courses, for which they may volunteer. To help them find jobs after release, it provides briefings on interview techniques and labour legislation, and has also set up a “caring employers” network.
Within the system itself, inmates are encouraged to be productive, through more vocational training, and this has borne fruit. In 2014, for example, the value of goods and services provided by prisoners reached HK$461 million, up from HK$395 million in 2010 (when the prison population was higher). Apart from doing laundry work for government departments, inmates produce office furniture, uniforms, metal railings and laminated books for public libraries – acquiring skills that can be put to good use on the outside.
The department also works hard to promote an environment that is conducive to rehabilitation, and intolerant of crime. Inside the institutions, violence, whether among inmates themselves or towards staff, is strictly contained, and dealt with severely by internal disciplinary measures, with the more serious cases going to court. Opportunities for crime are minimised, officers foil numerous attempts each year to smuggle drugs into correctional facilities. Inmates are closely supervised, and the staff-to-inmate ratio is high, with 6,907 officers managing 29 facilities (including correctional institutions, halfway houses and custodial wards of public hospitals), which contributes to good order.
The department’s facilities, if not always state of the art, are more than adequate, and modern amenities, including libraries, workshops and sports grounds, are generally available. Morale among officers is reportedly good, and there have been few of the problems which, for example, erupted in Britain in November, when thousands of prison officers walked out following a rise in violence and self-harm incidents in a crowded and underfunded penal system. England and Wales currently have 85,000 prisoners, and the Howard League for Penal Reform recently reported that a prisoner commits suicide every three days, whereas in Hong Kong the average is 10 to 20 a year.
Some inevitably reoffend upon release, but this certainly does not reflect on the department, which will have done its best to rehabilitate them. Recidivists often lapse because they can’t find a job, are unable to readjust to life, or simply lack the will to renounce crime and its easy pickings. Private corporations can do much more to assist ex-inmates, particularly those detained for a long time and facing a now-unfamiliar world.
When discharged inmates get individual support and jobs, their chances of recidivism are significantly decreased. It is, therefore, up to the community at large to complement the excellent rehabilitative service already provided by the department.
Grenville Cross SC is a criminal justice analyst