Heat therapy

June 07, 2023 09:03
Photo: csd.gov.hk

I am reliably informed that the prisoners housed on the top floors of Stanley Prison are being held in appalling conditions. The temperature is 36º, the cells are small and have no internal cooling device. The nearest fan, a small one, is located outside the cell door and the window through which such ventilated air can pass is a very small one.

I can well understand the reaction of a number of the more sensitive members of the community, “Let them fry, serves ‘em right.”

However, the Correctional Services staff are wearing full sleeve length uniforms and are sweltering too. Surely they don’t deserve to fry too?

Punishment is one of the elements that go into a prison sentence, but in a place as otherwise civilised as Hong Kong, it is an indictment of the system that adds the threat of exposure to potentially fatal levels of heat with a commensurate effect on the prisoners’ health, as an aggravation of the penalty.

Part of the Chinese character for hot is shared with part of that for torture, which seems appropriate. Whereas characterising what these prisoners and their guards are enduring as torture may be a little exaggerated, it is certainly cruel and unusual punishment.

There is, I am aware, a school of thought that believes that anyone confined to a prison deserves to be there and if they don’t like the conditions, they should have thought about that before embarking on whatever criminal activity resulted in their incarceration.

However, some of the prisoners held in these patently unsafe conditions have not even been convicted but are awaiting trial. In current circumstances, that wait, unbelievably, extends to years.

Depriving an individual of his or her liberty is not only society’s way of meting out punishment to deter from re-offending, it also has a very important redemptive component.

Penal philosophy argues that, deprived of the freedom of society, the prisoner will mend his or her ways and be rehabilitated.

But if the conditions under which the sentence is served reduce a human being to something that would merit a criminal conviction if imposed on a dumb animal, is it altogether surprising that serving the sentence has the effect of implanting a deep-seated sense of injustice and a desire for retribution on that society?

The pandemic gave many people something of the sense of being locked up in a prison.

I say ‘something of a sense’ because there is no real comparison with the conditions under which people undergo imprisonment proper.

Certainly, the loss of liberty has an immediate impact and it is a tragic reflection on the Covid restrictions to which millions of people were condemned that many suffered psychiatric damage, some even died.

But apart from the unfortunate people who were given the privilege of enjoying the comforts of Penny’s Bay – which garnered the International Hoteliers’ award of ‘Outstanding’ in the Stalag Luft III category – the hotel accommodation in which the quarantine sentences were served tended to mitigate the effects of sequestration.

There is an unbridgeable gulf between enforced quarantine conditions and the concomitants of penal servitude, not least the loss of personal dignity and subjection to a rigid penal regime.

One of the important functions of a Justice of the Peace is to visit prisons and address shortcomings in the system. Hong Kong is awash with JPs but I fear most of them, whilst thrusting out their proud little chests, are either unwilling or unable to carry out the critical task of monitoring the conditions in the prisons.

Solutions to the problem of dangerous overheating spring readily to mind. An insulating layer at roof level, or even more constructively, photo-voltaic panels to generate electric current to drive Air Conditioning units.

Why do I hear siren voices inquiring uncomprehendingly “Air-Conditioning for prisoners? Whatever next, feather beds and room service?”

Repeat offending or recidivism, is an indictment of the community in which it features. The normal prison regime ought to be more than enough to deter but people who are treated as less than human will be far more likely to seek revenge on a society that they perceive regards them as unworthy of humane treatment.

If some of these prisoners are subsequently diagnosed as having suffered kidney problems because of the conditions in which they were held, or even worse, die of heatstroke, the current administration will find itself held to account legally.

When the temperature rises, it is time for cool heads to do the thinking and acting.

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King's Counsel