Participants of Women in Prison: An International Symposium on the Bangkok Rules visit Lo Wu Correctional Institution on February 27, 2014.

Dui Hua contacted Hong Kong Correctional Services Department (CSD) in October 2012 to explore the possibility of visiting a women’s prison during our symposium on women in prison. In early 2013, the department undertook an internal review of its prison system with an eye towards the Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), a focus of the symposium. On February 27, 2014, symposium participants visited Hong Kong’s largest and newest women’s prison, Lo Wu Correctional Institution (LWCI), to learn about the steps CSD has taken to implement gender-responsive treatment.

Located near the border with Shenzhen, LWCI can house up to 1,400 prisoners. Capacity in the minimum-security wing is 600 persons, while each of the two medium-security wings can house 400 prisoners. As of December 31, 2013, there were 1,113 women in LWCI.

Only about a quarter of women in prison in Hong Kong are local residents. The majority are mainland Chinese women who have committed immigration violations and engaged in sex work. Women incarcerated at LWCI were generally convicted of non-violent offenses, including drug- and immigration-related offenses, and tend to have short periods of imprisonment.

Built in 2010 on the site of a former military base, LWCI boasts clean and modern facilities with concrete and linoleum floors and white walls. Large, opaque and barred windows allow light to enter its long hallways. Participants toured one of the medium-security wings, visiting its canteen, workshops, cell blocks, and mother and child units as well as the “psychological gymnasium” and medical facilities. In line with the Bangkok Rules, all guards were women, while some supervisors and other staff were men.

Daily Grind

Beginning in the canteen we learned that staff dieticians determine each person’s meal type and serving size during intake and registration. Meals are served at 7 am, noon, and 4:30 pm, with a snack served at 6:30 pm. Three types of special meals are designed to accommodate vegetarian, Islamic, and Hindi diets, and pregnant women are given additional portions in light of their unique nutritional requirements.

Women incarcerated at LWCI work six to ten hour days, six days a week in workshops for bookbinding, shoemaking, sewing, and preparing medical face masks. CSD staff explained that in an effort to minimize economic incentive or exploitation, all products are supplied to the Hong Kong government—books go to public libraries, while clothing and masks go to local hospitals.

Prisoners worked silently as we observed them handling face masks and hospital gowns. In response to a participant’s question, CSD staff said that women are allowed to talk while they work. Inside their cell blocks, women share 10-bed dormitories with those in their work groups. In addition to dormitories, cell blocks feature a common room with two television sets (one for Chinese programming and one for English) and a small library. CCTV cameras are conspicuously installed in the dormitories. To avoid being recorded, prisoners are advised to change in the bathrooms. The cell blocks had high ceilings and large windows, but no air-conditioning units to moderate temperatures during Hong Kong’s hot and humid summer months.

In addition to their daily routine, some prisoners are given the opportunity to enroll in vocational certification programs of three months or more. A review board determines eligibility, usually selecting prisoners nearing release. Courses include computer science and sales for electronics or beauty supplies. These courses have high passing rates of 100 or, in the case of computer science, 90 percent. The certificates given upon completion are the same as those offered in training programs to free persons throughout Hong Kong, minimizing stigmatization.

Children in Prison

In Hong Kong, mothers are allowed to keep their babies with them in prison until the children reach age three. Mother and child units have up to six cots, each coupled with a crib, in a sterile, white room. As is the case with prisoners, children are only allowed outside for fresh air for one hour each day. CSD staff noted that the prison’s nurseries were still under renovation.

Globally, prison administrators and prisoner rights advocates debate whether and under what circumstances it is appropriate for children to live in prison. (For example, children are not allowed to live in prisons in mainland China or in Norway.) According to Rule 49 of the Bangkok Rules, “decisions to allow children to stay with their mothers in prison shall be based on the best interests of the children. Children in prison with their mothers shall never be treated as prisoners.” Rule 51.2 states that “the environment provided for such children’s upbringing shall be as close as possible to that of a child outside prison.”

Symposium participants were moved by the mother and child units, rekindling the debate on whether children should be raised in prisons. One participant opined that all mothers should be paroled prior to or upon giving birth. Another questioned the importance society places on motherhood and asked if grandparents or other family members outside prison could raise children of incarcerated mothers well enough to outweigh the negative impact of separating mother and child.

Young children are afforded special visitation rights at LWCI. Up until age six, they may visit their mothers for two hours, twice a week in a playroom with toys, play structures, and books. Visiting children are not permitted to play outside with their mothers. Visitors over age six are restricted to 30-minute visits twice a month. All visitors, including children, are searched prior to their visit. There are no facilities for overnight or conjugal visits.

Mental Health

The psychological gymnasium, or “Psy Gym,” is run by two full-time clinical psychologists who facilitate one-on-one and group sessions with prisoners. The name “psychological gymnasium” comes from the emphasis on prisoners taking agency in working out their mental health issues and emotional habits. Psychologists use drawing and storytelling, and a music therapist works in the prison one day each week.

In the event of self-harm, prisoners are not punished through placement in isolation or solitary confinement. Instead, they are given more attention—staff members check on them every 15 minutes and ensure that they are never alone, especially at night. Where serious injuries result, inmates are transferred to local hospitals or clinics for treatment at the government’s expense. Transfer outside the prison is also necessary for prisoners who develop serious illnesses.

Prisons and criminal justice systems should primarily serve to rehabilitate and reintegrate people at odds with the law, not simply remove, isolate, and punish. The stated mission of Hong Kong Correctional Services Department is to “protect the public and reduce crime, by providing a secure, safe, humane, decent and healthy environment for people in custody, opportunities for rehabilitation of offenders, and working in collaboration with the community and other agencies.” Our visit to LWCI raised important questions and concerns—including whether the level of security at the institution was proportional to the level of threat posed by the women in custody—it also demonstrated that CSD is working towards its mission. We encourage all states to make use of the Bangkok Rules to build healthy custodial environments and opportunities for rehabilitation.