Why Hong Kong needs a Super Prison

 In Law & Order

A speech delivered at a speaker luncheon of Hong Kong Democratic Foundation on 29 September 2003


Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:


First of all, I would like to thank the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation for inviting me to address your luncheon meeting today.


I have been asked to talk about “Why Hong Kong needs a Super Prison”. The starting point in answer to that question is that Hong Kong’s prisons have long reached their saturation point and so we need more prisons, and we need more modern prison facilities. If that point is accepted, then it becomes a question of how to provide those facilities in a practical, efficient and cost effective manner, with the least social price to pay. Our analyses show that it makes better sense for the long-term efficiency of prison operation and a number of other benefits to build those facilities together at one place, rather than to build them separately at different places on a piecemeal basis.  We have therefore put forward a long-term prison development plan to co-locate prison institutions in one place. This plan is popularly referred to as the “Super Prison”.


So, today I shall elaborate on why Hong Kong needs additional and new prison facilities, and why we think it is better to have them together at one place. I shall also take the opportunity to tell you more about our specific proposal to co-locate the new prison facilities at Hei Ling Chau, an island not far off the east shore of Lantau Island.


Why Hong Kong needs more prisons
Hong Kong is one of the world’s safest cites. Our overall crime rate, in terms of the total number of crimes per 100,000 population, is lower than, for example, New York, Tokyo, Toronto and other metropolitan cities. Notwithstanding this, we have our fair share of prisoners and a growing prisoner population at that.  As a result, the Correctional Services Department is facing a serious problem of prison overcrowding, and has been so doing for more than a decade. As at mid-September 2003, our penal population stood at some 12,700, representing an occupancy rate of 112% of certified accommodation.  While this may be good news if we were running a hotel, the overcrowding of prisons poses a real problem to the Correctional Services Department, which is tasked to hold the prisoners in custody in a safe and humane manner according to the law. Because there are legal constraints over where and how we group prisoners and detain them accordingly, one has to look at the areas where overcrowding is most serious in order to fully appreciate the extent of the problem. Well, overcrowding is most serious in the maximum-security prisons, the remand facilities and female prisons, which are operating at occupancy rates of 132%, 152% and 194% respectively. The overcrowded situation creates difficulties for prison management in maintaining good order and discipline within the prisons; it also creates tension among the inmates, making it difficult for prison staff to administer rehabilitation programmes effectively. The rehabilitation programmes are, of course, a very important part of our correctional services, because they aim to prepare the inmates for better reintegration into society and thereby cut down on recidivism.  It could also be dangerous if too many people are crowded into accommodation that is designed for far fewer people.


Worse still, the penal population is expected to continue to grow and may reach 15,000 by 2024. The projection is made in accordance with an established methodology which takes into account such things as the crime rate, crime detection rate, conviction rate, sentencing pattern and the general population growth. The figure of 15,000 by 2024 represents an increase of just about 0.87% per annum, compared to the forecast growth of the general population at the rate 0.97% per annum over the same period.  According to this projection, if no penal facilities are added, there may be a shortfall of some 3,800 penal places by 2024.


At the same time, many of the existing penal institutions are either very old or converted from buildings previously used for other purposes. These outdated or non-purpose built institutions, with their poor environment and sub-standard facilities, are presenting prison management with considerable operational and security problems. Because of the lack of space and relevant facilities, important rehabilitation work is also affected.


Building at different locations or having them at one place
Given the demonstrated, pressing need to build and upgrade prison facilities, the question then arises as to how this can be achieved in a practical and cost effective manner. An obvious solution is to follow the traditional approach and build the required number of new prisons at different locations, as well as to redevelop some of the existing institutions to upgrade the archaic and sub-standard facilities. However, this approach is not without its difficulties and constraints. Apart from the question of cost, it is extremely difficult to identify sites for prison development. No matter which site is chosen, objection from the local residents can be expected.  If it is difficult to find one suitable and acceptable site, imagine the difficulty of finding five such sites, which is how many we will need in order to satisfy the forecast demand. As for the existing archaic and non-purpose built institutions, improvements by way of in-situ upgrading of facilities are possible only to a very limited extent, because of physical constraints posed by the old buildings themselves and the surrounding topography and environment. The lack of decanting facilities to enable the carrying out of such improvement works without jeopardising the security and operation of the institutions, is also a stumbling block to any such redevelopment and improvement efforts.


All those difficulties made us look to other ways of solving the problem. And we thought of the so-called “Super Prison” approach whereby all the new facilities would be located at one site. The opportunity would be taken to replace some of the old and dilapidated facilities, also at that site.  Co-location as a concept, and practice, is not new. In New York the Rikers Island Prison Complex comprises ten penal institutions for male, female and young offenders, with a total capacity for 17,000 inmates.  The Rikers Island prison complex has been operating successfully since 1985. Closer to home, Singapore has started to implement its Changi Prison Complex project, which will co-locate 20 penal institutions and provide 21,500 penal places.  This project will be able to accommodate all Singapore’s existing penal institutions and related supporting facilities. These are projects from which we can take useful reference.


In Hong Kong co-locating new prison facilities and reprovisioning some of the existing institutions at one place, provided that a suitable site could be found, would avoid or overcome many of the problems that I mentioned earlier with regard to building or redeveloping prisons on a piecemeal basis. The new approach would also present other opportunities for us to capitalise on.  The purpose-built prison complex would allow the strengthening and streamlining of penal operations. As different institutions are co-located at one place, it would enable the Correctional Services Department to pool together the staff for standby and emergency response duties, and thereby strengthen contingency arrangements as well as reduce related staff costs. Greater flexibility and shorter response time would be achieved in staff mobilization during emergencies.


The co-location approach will also provide an opportunity to renew and upgrade installations and systems currently in use, which are out-dated or reaching the end of their serviceable life, and help to bring down maintenance costs. These modern facilities, such as mock office set-ups and computer rooms, will enable the provision of better education and vocational training for inmates. The Correctional Services Department and other non-government organizations will be able to run rehabilitation programmes with better results.


Another major advantage of co-location is the achievement of considerable economy of scale. With streamlined operations, it is envisaged that the manning scale for the prisons could be improved. Supporting facilities and services, such as visitors’ reception, prison hospital, kitchen, laundry, escort and transport services and emergency response units, could be combined and shared among the institutions. These would translate into very substantial savings in operational and manpower costs in the long run.


Last but not least, as a significant positive by-product of co-location, some of the existing penal sites could be released for redevelopment to meet other community needs. Planning and land use on a territorial basis would be improved. This does not mean though that we are oblivious to the possible negative consequence, which is that a large-scale development of this kind may have impact on the natural environment. We would need to choose the site very carefully, as well as go through the full statutory process of environmental impact assessment and other major tests to determine feasibility and acceptability.


But nothing comes free. There will always be a price to pay for benefits gained; and it is a matter of finding a balance between the advantages and disadvantages. Overall, the Government believe that the co-location approach is the best to tackle Hong Kong’s correctional services needs on a long-term basis.


The Hei Ling Chau project
We introduced the idea of co-location of prison institutions to the Legislative Council for discussion in 2000, and deliberation of the proposal has been on-going since. Taking into account the views of LegCo Members, we refined the proposal to one which now involves the building of a 7,220-place prison complex at Hei Ling Chau.  Under the proposal, eight existing penal institutions on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, as well as all our remand facilities, will be reprovisioned at the new prison complex. At the same time, an additional 2,600 places will be provided to alleviate the prison-overcrowding problem and to cater to the forecast growth in penal population up to 2015.  The design will take careful account of the need for impeccable security. The complex will probably be divided into clusters, with each having its own boundary and consisting of a number of individually managed, stand-alone institutions. Supporting facilities like kitchen, hospital and laundry, etc. will be centralised.  The estimated cost of the development is $12 billion and the prison complex is tentatively targeted for completion in 2013.  We will study the opportunities for private sector participation in this project with a view to cutting down on the cost to the Government and enhancing efficiency.


Searching for a suitable site for the proposed development is no easy task. The site has to be large enough and it has to satisfy a number of different considerations.  An extensive territorial location search was done based on a set of objective criteria, which included, for example, the need to avoid villages, burial and fung shui grounds, existing and proposed country parks, and wetland. We need to avoid private land as far as possible.  It is obvious that such a site does not exist in the urban areas, and that the possibly viable options are in the north or northwest New Territories, or the outlying islands. In north New Territories, most of the areas are made up of wetland with ecological values. In northwest New Territories, the developable areas consist mainly of intervening rural land between villages, which cannot yield a sizable piece of land for development.


Two possible site options – at Hei Ling Chau and Kong Nga Po in north New Territories – were shortlisted. A detailed evaluation of these two site options covering cost-effectiveness, operational effectiveness, planning, engineering and environmental considerations, and long-term potential for alternative development was then carried out. Both site options meet the operational requirements and present their own set of advantages and constraints. However, a macro look at the needs for territorial development tipped the balance towards the choice of Hei Ling Chau.


Kong Nga Po, partly falling within the Frontier Closed Area, is considered to have great potential for long-term development into other uses which can best take advantage of the strategic location of the area. This development direction is supported by the views collected from the general public during the consultation carried out last year in connection with the “Hong Kong 2030: Planning, Vision and Strategy” study. Hei Ling Chau, on the other hand, already has three penal institutions and is a restricted area. Having balanced all relevant considerations, we have selected Hei Ling Chau for further assessment of its feasibility for the prison development.


Present position of the proposal
Given the scale of the development, it is necessary to conduct a feasibility study and preliminary site investigation for land formation and infrastructure works for the project. The feasibility study will cover a wide range of subjects, such as land use and planning, traffic and transport, sewerage and drainage, and geotechnical studies. In particular, to address environmental concerns, a statutory environmental impact assessment will be included.


Funding for the feasibility study and related preliminary site investigation was approved by the Legislative Council last May.  The feasibility study will be conducted in two stages. Stage 1 has commenced and is targeted for completion in May next year. We will report the findings to LegCo and seek their approval before embarking on stage 2.


To conclude, I wish to emphasize the need for Hong Kong to have a long-term prison development plan. The proposed 7220-place prison complex, plus the 16 remaining old prisons scattered around the New Territories and the outlying islands, will be able to provide just enough capacity to cater to the forecast penal population of some 13,800 by 2015. By then, the long-standing overcrowding situation will finally be relieved, and we will have improved prison facilities and operations, resulting in long-term efficiency savings and, hopefully, more effective rehabilitation programmes. In taking this proposal forward, we are fully aware of the need to minimise the impact on the environment, and that all necessary mitigation measures will need to be implemented as recommended by the professionals.  We also appreciate that the public, especially residents on the outlying islands, may have strong views on the proposed development. We will carry out extensive public consultation during the course of the feasibility study. Due consideration will be given to the views collected before finally deciding on whether to proceed with the prison development. Thank you.



Jennie Chok Pang Yuen Yee (祝彭婉儀)
Deputy Secretary for Security, Security Bureau (保安局副秘書長)
29 September 2003





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