Recent news reports and a movie on alleged inmate abuse by prison staff have raised concerns over the human rights conditions in correctional institutions, but little has been written about officers being held accountable.
The non-profit Society for Community Organization (SoCO) says this is because many inmates choose to remain silent for fear of retaliation from prison staff and owing to the lack of an effective mechanism to handle their grievances.
But one man felt he had to speak up against injustices he experienced and witnessed in Stanley Prison, Hong Kong’s largest maximum security jail.
At a media session arranged by SoCO last week, recent ex-convict Mr Chan said he had filed over 70 complaints – including to the chief executive – which all went unanswered.
He said the trouble began when he reported alleged misconduct by Correctional Services Department (CSD) officers, such as bullying prisoners, swearing at them and conniving in unlawful activities by inmates. He claimed these occurrences are “very common.”
He alleged that two officers beat him up in a pantry without a surveillance camera when they found out he made a complaint against them.
“I fainted because of that. On the way to the hospital, they threatened me and warned me not to tell anyone anything,” he said.
When he made a verbal complaint to a senior prison officer, he claimed he was told: “Even if you win this time, what about next time? Would you make it through?”
Chan then gave up on the idea for fear of retaliation from the officers. When he changed his mind two years later, his complaint was rejected as the two-year time limit had expired.
But even if the complaint was accepted, Chan said it would still be very difficult to hold the officers to account: “There were no witnesses except the two officers – of course they wouldn’t testify against each other.”
He added that even if a fellow inmate witnessed the incident, he would not expect them to give evidence because most prisoners are worried about revenge from officers.
He also claimed that officers know how to use force without inflicting visible injuries on the prisoners. Without evidence, it would be nearly impossible to prove his case.
Besides bodily violence, Chan said CSD staff silence prisoners through various means, such as “encouraging” other inmates to bully them and falsely accusing them of possessing prohibited items, which would warrant disciplinary actions such as solitary confinement.
“Are they providing correctional services, or merely punishing prisoners?” Chan said. “After being treated unfairly, unjustly and inhumanely, tell me, what self-improvement am I supposed to make?”
Chan was not the only one who made the accusation. SoCO reported similar accounts in a paper released last week. Based on 44 case studies, the NGO said the prison complaint system lacks independence, transparency and accountability.
Currently, inmates mainly rely on the Complaints Investigation Unit – an internal unit of the CSD – for allegations against prison staff, such as injustice in disciplinary actions, the use of excessive force and abuse of authority.
Only 3 out of 314 cases investigated by the unit were substantiated over the last three years. 183 were found to be unsubstantiated for reasons such as a lack of evidence and the expiration of the two-year time limit.
Prisoners can also verbally complain to visiting justices of the peace or report to external bodies such as police, the Ombudsman and the Independent Commission Against Corruption. But SoCO said these entities referred most of the cases back to the CSD’s complaint unit.
Lack of confidentiality is also an issue. It said that while “complaints are meant to be confidential, complainants are often questioned repeatedly, or even threatened, by staff when they [submit] their complaints.”
Another frequently cited issue is the difficulty of collecting evidence owing to the lack of systematic record-keeping. As an example, CCTV records are only kept for three months, so a complainant is unlikely to obtain the record if they take action after that period.
In Chan’s case, SoCO said the CSD gave him a detailed report on why one of his complaints failed only after the NGO interfered. It turned out that the complainee – a prison medical worker – had resigned and investigators could not get him to respond to the case.
“This is a big problem because if [Chan] doesn’t know how you investigated his case, how can he appeal the investigative methodology or result?” Annie Lin of SoCO said.
“We are urging the government to review its complaint mechanism and set up an independent system [whereby] prisoners can feel safe to complain and do that in a confidential manner.”
SoCO suggests establishing an independent body to oversee the CSD’s work and supervise the Complaint Investigation Unit. It also proposed a mechanism to protect witnesses and complainants from “staff violation and aggression,” as well as confidential complaint boxes for inmates.
As for Chan, he said he came forward out of a sense of justice. “No one dares to speak up in prison. Some ex-convicts don’t want to talk about their past, so they don’t take action. But I want justice for those still serving sentences. I want them to be treated humanely.”
The CSD told HKFP that it takes every complaint seriously and fairly, and will provide assistance if a complainant approaches external bodies.
It said that its internal complaint unit is chaired by an administrative officer who is independent of the disciplined force. An appeals committee – consisting of ten justices of the peace – was also formed last August to review appeal cases, it said.
It added that the department reviews and improves its complaint mechanism periodically.
Meanwhile, the Correctional Services Officers’ Association criticised SoCO for being unfair to prison staff by not involving the CSD when holding their press conference.
It said inmates should ask prison officers to report to police any alleged breaches of the law inside a correctional institution.
Over 11,300 people were admitted to correctional institutions to serve a sentence each year over the past three years.