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Prison rights group calls for transparency in complaint system

Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre has the capacity to hold 1484 prisoners, according to the Correctional Services Department.

Beyond the high grey walls and barbed wire fence, only a little sunlight shines through the barred windows into the cells where prisoners spend their days. Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre is a medium-security facility where people who are denied bail are often held while awaiting trial.

Mr Ma, who doesn’t want to reveal his full name for fear of retaliation, was arrested in November 2020 due to the social movement. He has been in solitary confinement for more than a month, and he doesn’t know when he will get out. 

“You lose all your rights in solitary cells where you spend 23 hours a day facing four walls,” said Mr Ma, who has been in the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre since late November 2020.  “Everything is worse in solitary cells.”

Solitary confinement should only be used as a last resort and never longer than 15 days, according to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

But Mr Ma didn’t file a complaint.

The Correctional Services Department introduced the Complaints Appeal Board CSDCAB in 2016, chaired by the deputy commissioner of correctional services. It serves to improve the transparency and credibility of the Correctional Service Department’s complaints handling mechanisms. The appeal board is responsible for re-examining complaints and making final decisions on the appeal cases against the findings of complaints investigations. 

But those held behind bars have limited channels to cry for help. Complaints in Hong Kong’s 24 prisons are first investigated internally. In 2019, prisoners, members of the public and prison staff filed 504 complaints to the Complaints Investigation Unit of the Correctional Service Department, according to the department’s website. Only two were substantiated and close to 60 percent were found to be unsubstantiated. Social organisations and prison right activists call for transparency to the complaints handling mechanism.

A 2015 joint report submitted to the Legislative Council on the rights of prisoners found that the impartiality of the internal investigation mechanism of the Correctional Services Department was “questionable”. Subsequent external investigations, such as visits by a Justice of the Peace or resorting to the Ombudsman’s office either “lacked investigation initiative” or  “ had limited mandate to hear complaints”.

The complaints range from misconduct of staff and use of unnecessary force to operational problems, such as diet and visiting arrangements

Shiu Ka-chun, a former legislator and social worker, spent eight months in jail for his role in the 2014 Occupy Central social movement.

He filed 16 complaints during his time in prison, including his difficulty trying to lodge a complaint.  

Mr Shiu Ka-Chun and Wall Fare coworkers distribute s from members of the public to prisoners who were arrested during the social movement.

“13 out of 16 complaints were accepted. But they were all found to be invalid ( by the Complaints Investigation Unit) due to lack of evidence. How can I provide evidence when I have no camera or recording device in jail?” Mr Shiu said. 

Prison policy reform, including how complaints are handled, is urgently needed, said Mr Shui, a founder of Wall Fare, a local prison rights organization. He also supplies free “approved articles,” such as tissue and shampoo, and has forwarded more than 7,000 letters from members of the public to inmates.

Mr Shiu alleged that prisoners are beaten up or threatened by guards if they ask to fill out a complaint form. Their names and serial numbers are on the forms and their forms are speculated by the prison wards before submitting. 

Members of the public who wish to enquire about a specific complaint can do so through the  Office of the Ombudsman or the Home Affairs Department. 

Mr Shiu says a transparent and independent complaint monitoring system is needed, which the United Nations outlines in the 2002 Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, an agreement ratified by 90 states, but not including China or Hong Kong.

The Correctional Service Department issued a statement in 2019 after legislator Mr Shiu, Dr Fernando Cheung, Mr Charles Mok and several other legislators held a press conference concerning the complaints mechanism of the Correctional Service Department. The statement emphasized that the department attaches great importance to complaints and constantly reviews and enhances the regime for better transparency and credibility. 

504 complaints were received by the Complaints Investigation Unit in 2019.

The Complaints Investigation Unit is appointed by the Commissioner of the Correctional Service Department to handle and investigate all complaints and deliver the findings of their investigation within 18 weeks. Complainants may then appeal to the  Correctional Services Department Complaints Committee, and demand that the investigation be conducted externally through a Justice of the Peace or the Ombudsman’s Office.

In 2019, the  Society for Community Organisation, an advocacy group that  has been fighting for human’s rights and equality of all members of the society, proposed to set up an independent ombudsman to monitor how complaints are handled in its annual report

 The pro-democracy camp also proposed comprehensive prison reform in 2018, including setting up a transparent and independent complaint system with confidentiality for complainants and witnesses.  

The Correctional Service Department said the situation is complex due to security considerations, in a statement to the Legislative Council in response to the proposal.   

The Young Reporter had reached out to The Correctional Service Department for more details on personeels responsible for complaint investigations and asked for response to the allegations of lack of transparency. The Correctional Service Department has replied to us with their website statistics and has yet to respond to the allegations. 

“Prisoners are frightened without a protected complaint system. This is exactly why an independent monitoring department should be established for justice and fairness,” Mr Shiu said.



《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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