Hei Ling Chau super jail bad idea

Why a super-jail is a bad idea

Chan Wai-kwan
[Happily, in mid-October, the government shelved the super-jail plan; hope it stays shelved! - Martin]
A weak government’s response to a hostile Legislature, as one popular rumour has it, is to put up bad ideas for people to reject, so that more sensible policies can come forward later.

If the Hei Ling Chau super-prison is one such idea, then let us help kill it off, quick.

A super-prison in Hei Ling Chau is a bad idea because it makes no sense in land use planning. One needs only to take a 360-degree perspective from Hei Ling Chau to appreciate that.

On one side, the island is flanked by the North Lantau attractions, including the picturesque Chi Ma Wan Peninsula, the bustling traditional tourist centre of Mui Wo, the unique community of Discovery Bay, the pleasant getaway on Peng Chau Island, and of course Disney, the super-playground on Penny’s Bay.
Barely two kilometers to its south lies Cheung Chau island, probably the world’s most compact living heritage of traditional Chinese culture in its natural environs.
Across West Lamma Channel, Hei Ling Chau overlooks Pokfulam, Cyberport and Wah Fu, which local group Civic Exchange has described as “Hong Kong’s portal to nature”. Then there is the famed Lamma Island, which, together with Hong Kong Island South, has once been described by Government’s own Planning Department as “a showpiece for Hong Kong, the Garden of the Metropolitan Area, the leisure destination for Hong Kong”.

Can one imagine, in the middle of these all, Asia’s super prison proudly announcing itself?

Granted, Hei Ling Chau is currently used as a prison, but it is a much more low-key use, with the natural character and pristine environment well preserved. Given its steep topography, little flat land, and covered mainly by natural vegetation, any substantial development will have major environmental impact on the island. The Bogadek’s Burrowing Lizard, a rare endemic species found on the island, will be endangered, as will the locally protected Burmese Python.

For the general public, Hei Ling Chau and nearby Sunshine Island are simply part of South Lantau’s beautiful landscape. It cannot be missed by any traveller from Central, whether one’s destination is Lamma, Cheung Chau or Mui Wo – and neither could any major development on Hei Ling Chau, or the bridge to connect it to Lantau, if the super-prison were to go forward.

On a more sentimental note, Hei Ling Chau, the Healing Island, has its unique place in history as the original venue of Hong Kong’s leprosarium. It later turned into a drug addiction treatment centre, before becoming the current prison and detention centre.

Such a planning context of Hei Ling Chau has almost ruled out anything other than a passive land use – whether as prison or holiday home. Any large scale development would have been incompatible. Even a super-resort is questionable, a super-prison borders on the outrageous.

It is unfortunate that some government officials have seized on opposition from Lantau residents to picture it as a NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) issue. But Hei Ling Chau is not just about inconvenience to nearby residents. It calls into question the bigger issues of land use planning as well as correctional policy.

I find it difficult to see how planners can sanction a super-prison concept for Hei Ling Chau, but the point is, they never had the opportunity. If a Hei Ling Chau super-prison did make planning sense, the government could have drawn up a land use showing the full development parameters, and let it be debated by the professionals and the public. No doubt it will be vehemently objected to, but government should have the confidence that eventually good planning would prevail. But no, the public is to be presented with a feasibility study – not “is it right to have a super-prison on Hei Ling Chau”, but “how best do you think the super-prison should be built there?”

A more fundamental question is whether a super-prison is needed at all. Thus far overcrowding has been cited as the main reason for the super-prison, and indeed, the overcrowding problem must be acknowledged and tackled. But the nature of the problem must be more clearly thought through, especially when one considers that a large majority of inmates at the correctional institutions are now from the Mainland.

The man-in-the-street can be forgiven for thinking that the best way to deal with criminals is to deport them immediately upon conviction – that would resolve the overcrowding problem immediately. Alternatively, a change in the court’s sentencing practice, or a re-orientation of correctional policy towards more social integration, could see prison terms being slashed and hence relieving the pressure on overcrowding.

Of course, the reality is much more complicated. These are not simple policies to be taken lightly; we should not make rash decisions without thorough discussion and debate. What the government should have conducted is a serious review of the policy on rehabilitation and correctional service. This requires a thorough consultation with the community, prisoner rights groups, rehabilitation professionals, sociologists, economists, Immigration practitioners, as well as constitutional experts on One-Country-Two-Systems. A super-prison should be one, but not the only, option to be considered.

If the super-prison option emerges as the best way forward, let there be a public debate about site selection. If at the end of that, Hei Ling Chau remained the best solution, I would still flinch on my boat trip to Cheung Chau, but at least I could take comfort that it was the community’s choice and that due process has been observed.

Dr Chan Wai-kwan is a member of the Conservancy Association, which has submitted a request to the Town Planning Board to prepare a zoning plan for Hei Ling Chau.

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