SCMP Wednesday, November 7, 2001

'Nobody out there cares about us'


In his cell at Stanley Prison, Remiguis Okorie reads the newspaper every day. The Nigerian has been keeping up with the debate over foreigners in Hong Kong's jails. He has his own views, of course, earned through bitter experience.
"There is no future for us," he says. "One would like to believe that the purpose of imprisonment is to reform and rehabilitate offenders. But that is not so for foreigners serving prison terms in Hong Kong. They are completely destroyed psychologically and emotionally and come out of prison worse than they were before they went in." The three-month-long controversy over whether foreigners - including mainland Chinese - should be automatically entitled to reduced jail terms because of the extra hardships they allegedly encounter in SAR jails was revived again this week. The Court of Appeal ruled mainlanders should not be regarded as foreigners, because Hong Kong was part of China.
The issue arose in August, when Mr Justice Brian Keith reduced the prison sentence of a Swiss national convicted of fraud to reflect the hardships foreigners suffered in Hong Kong prisons because of differences in culture, language and diet, and isolation from family and friends.
Okorie, 37, was a small-time businessman in Nigeria but has spent the past nine years inside Stanley Prison. He was sentenced to 14 years after being caught by immigration officers while in transit at the-then Kai Tak Airport with more than 1,300 grams of heroin hidden in false compartments in his luggage.
"Life as a foreigner in Hong Kong is never easy to begin with, and these difficulties are only compounded in prison with the inevitable racial discrimination, being far from your family and loved ones, language barriers, cultural differences . . . every month spent here is like a year," he says.
Some judges dealing with the sentencing issue have said that foreign offenders "are the authors of their own misfortune". But Okorie says this suggests judges view imprisonment as nothing more than an exercise in retribution.
Okorie has repeatedly petitioned former governor Chris Patten and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, begging to be allowed to serve his sentence in Nigeria, to no avail. But now, with four months left to his release and deportation, Okorie is dreading his return.
"How do you expect me to go back to Nigeria to start re-adjusting to a society and system I left almost a decade ago?"
Frank Owen, an inmate at Shek Pik Prison, is something of an expert on the issue, having used his time behind bars to conduct extensive research on resources available to foreigners in local jails. Owen, also from Nigeria, has more than 15 years left to serve on his sentence for trafficking 3.4 kilograms of heroin in the lining of his baggage, also in transit. He was jailed for 23 years by a High Court judge who said there were other Nigerian inmates to keep him company.
"The total exclusion of all foreigners to benefit from any of the incentive schemes is at best biased and discriminatory and at worst a violation of our basic human rights," Owen says. He points to the Prisoners Release Under Supervision scheme, whereby eligible local prisoners can serve a portion of their sentences outside prison under regular supervision by correctional services staff. But this is not available to foreigners.
The Post-Release Supervision Board provides supervision and guidance to aid the rehabilitation of those who have committed serious crimes, after they have served two-thirds of their sentences. "This is clearly saying that foreign prisoners do not deserve, or should not be given, assistance to facilitate their reintegration into the society they will be returning to," Owen says.
A spokeswoman from the Security Bureau denies the exclusion of foreigners from the scheme is unfair, saying foreign inmates do not have the family or community links to enable effective supervision upon release. "It would be difficult for them to mingle into society here, so it is really not applicable to them."
Foreigners are, however, eligible for sentence remission, which is an automatic reduction of up to one-third of the prison term "on the grounds of industry and good conduct".
There are currently more than 1,000 foreign prisoners in Hong Kong jails, costing taxpayers an estimated $286 million a year. Most are from Vietnam (516), the Philippines (81), Pakistan (80), Thailand (60) and Nepal (43).
Currently, prisoners may apply to serve out their sentences in their own countries but this is dependent on the willingness of authorities there. Okorie applied for a transfer to Nigeria when the scheme started in 1997, but his request was rejected by the Security Bureau four months ago - four years after his initial application and with only months remaining to his release.
Foreigners with long jail terms do have access to sentence reduction through the Long-Term Prison Sentence Review Board, a panel of legal experts, social workers, educationalists and medical experts. However, in the past 10 years, the board has reviewed more than 4,000 cases but made no recommendations for sentence reduction for any prisoner, local or foreign, serving a sentence with a definite term, according to Security Bureau figures.
"Can it be said that no foreign prisoner has, in the past 10 years, behaved well enough to deserve a positive recommendation by this board?" Owen asks.
The Correctional Services Department stated in August that all Hong Kong prisoners were treated exactly the same, irrespective of their nationality, and that welfare staff were constantly in touch with foreign inmates.
But Okorie claims there is a fundamental problem with the attitude of the Hong Kong Government and the public towards its foreign prisoners.
"After one finishes his long-term sentence, he is put on a plane and sent back to his country, without any rehabilitation here, to start a forced and frustrated readjustment to the society and system he left many, many years ago.

"My rehabilitation is not important to you . . . nobody out there cares about us."

Ravina Shamdasani ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's News Desk.