SCMP Wednesday, October 3, 2001

Superjail a super idea worthy of thumbs-up from Legco

After more than a year of delay and deliberation, the Legislative Council's security panel is poised to consider proposals for a "superjail" to house the majority of Hong Kong's inmates in a single facility. Although the Legco committee is to discuss the plan, there's no guarantee it will take action. Further dithering might torpedo a proposal which could ease the growing squeeze in our prisons.
Correctional Services officers argue passionately for the large facility, which would house about 12,000 convicts. Behind escape-proof walls, there would be up to 20 self-contained compounds, holding prisoners segregated by differing age levels and security classifications.
Commissioner for Correctional Services Benny Ng Ching-kwok has attempted, at two meetings of the Legco security panel, to allay fears that a large number of potentially violent criminals in one place could be explosive. He has staked his considerable law-enforcement reputation (he was a senior assistant commissioner of police before transferring to the prison service in 1998) on the proposition that it would not be.
Sophisticated planning would see self-contained individual institutions, with inmates in one out of sight and sound of detainees in another. It would be an enlarged version of the system at Stanley Prison, where three separate institutions now hold 3,000 prisoners.
The superjail concept has been discussed for several years. It is now crunch time - a decision must be reached. If it is positive, planning could start at the most logical site, at the village of Kong Nga Po near Tak Wu Ling. There is ample space on abandoned farmland inside this closed frontier zone.
The urgency for a superjail is due to the constantly rising tide of people being convicted. There are now more than 12,000 inmates in 24 penal institutions. Overcrowding is most serious in jails designed to house the toughest convicts and in female prisons, which have 34 per cent more inmates than the intended maximum. Forecasts for 2024 predict 15,000 inmates in the prison system.
So, one way or another, the Correctional Services Department needs more space for its reluctant customers. One huge installation on the border is the preferred option. At a cost of $28 billion, it would solve a recurring problem for many years. Among the site's advantages are the proximity of the Police Tactical Unit - the riot school - a few minutes' away. If a major riot did take place, hundreds of armed, trained police would be at hand. There is good transport, so inmates' families could visit.
But spending $28 billion to house malefactors seems a lot of money in these perilous economic times. If the superjail is built, however, it means Stanley and the rest of the department's property portfolio could be sold, which would conservatively raise $20 billion. This fantastic land bank includes scenic gems such as Chi Ma Wan on Lantau Island and Cape Collinson on Hong Kong Island. Developers are salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on the island of Hei Ling Chau. Close to Disneyland now being constructed, this could be a superb luxury resort.
The alternative to one huge jail is at least five more prisons costing $5 billion each. This choice would mean Correctional Services installations - and an additional 1,600 full-time staff - would be scattered all over the SAR. This is what now exists, at a frightful cost in efficiency and operational ability. Mr Ng insists these conditions pose more of a security hazard than would one large institution.
It's now up to the Legco security panel to make a decision. Hopefully, its members will demonstrate the courage to make a visionary choice.
Kevin Sinclair ( ) is a Hong Kong-based journalist.