Megan Smith (English 2009) is currently teaching English in Hong Kong. Reports of my lecture in New York provoked her to send these thoughts, based on her experience as a volunteer language teacher in Lo Wu Women’s Prison, Hong Kong.

Having had my attention drawn to the Master’s presentation on the concept of ‘walls’ and comparing the undergraduate population of Fitzwilliam College with the prison population of England and Wales, I felt compelled to write a response drawing on my own experiences of the division between the punitive and rehabilitative aspects I have encountered whilst volunteering at Lo Wu Prison.

Lo Wu is the last mini-bus stop in Hong Kong before the Mainland border – and also the final destination for the majority of the women from Mainland China who commit immigration offences or are illegally involved in the sex trade. Being physically located on a border perhaps then becomes a pertinent metaphor for the many types of division to which one is a witness when experiencing this place. Lo Wu Women’s Prison is, quite literally, the end of the line.

Built in 2010, Lo Wu boasts ‘clean modern facilities with concrete and linoleum floors and white walls’. Admittedly, it was the prospect of facing these walls which had initially made me apprehensive about volunteering. On my first visit, the white corridors seemed punctuated solely by the large, white metal doors, behind which lay the modern facilities that make Lo Wu prison the figurative jewel in the Hong Kong Correctional Services’ crown – workshops for community initiative activities such as bookbinding for district libraries, a ‘psychological gymnasium’, meeting rooms with video link for contact with lawyers, and countless purpose-built classrooms for vocational skills courses. To anyone reading about the facilities in a report on penal reform, it would seem that Lo Wu prison is a model prison conducive to effective rehabilitation and reintegration. Indeed, it seems to tick all of the boxes in terms of ‘correct’ terminology according to The UN Bangkok Rules for Women Offenders. However, as I walked down the seemingly lifeless white tunnels, I could not help but retain my sense of unease and scepticism over whether these facilities were any more substantial than signs attached to doors.

In my mind, the walls of the blank corridors symbolised the sterile, punitive structures firmly erected in the Mainland Chinese penal system serving as a barrier to separate and segregate inmates from society. Thus, they conflicted with my own opinions on penal reform – especially in the case of female prisoners. Articles that I had read, produced by human rights groups such as the Dui Hua Foundation, had consistently highlighted progress in gender-specific treatment as an area in which Chinese prisons are severely lacking. In Hong Kong, strictly limited visitation rights provide huge obstacles to family contact: children over the age of six are afforded only two 30-minute visits per month; glass barriers in visitation rooms prevent direct physical contact with family members; and, somewhat shockingly, women in pre-trial detention are routinely denied visits until after they are sentenced. In terms of the provisions for mental health, Chinese prisons commonly rely on prison police to provide prisoners with counselling. Citing financial constraints as the main barrier, such prison police are usually little more than civil servants and, for those recruited, training generally focuses on legal knowledge rather than the specialist training necessary to deal with prison life. This is particularly problematic for women’s prisons, since laws and regulations on the treatment of female detainees are “scattered and overly simplistic” dealing mostly with sex segregation and special procedures for pregnant and breastfeeding women. With thoughts such as these running through my mind, perhaps it is unsurprising then that it was the white walls of Lo Wu that left a lasting impression on me.

I had read that women in the prison usually worked for six to ten hours a day, six days a week, often in silence, and was expecting it to be difficult to get the women to interact with each other in my initial ‘English as a Second Language’ class. I had seen visions of the pinnacle of my lessons being reduced to my poor imitations of the animals whose names we were learning; a tragic sight for anyone. However, as the lesson started my fears went unfounded. I was encouraged to observe the prison officers chatting friendly to the students who were cheerful, enthusiastic and very much at ease in the social setting of the lesson. Furthermore, whilst all students had extremely limited English, they all tried to help their neighbours the best they could and there was a sense of unity in laughter during the class – event if the majority of this laughter was through their bemusement at the aforementioned wildlife impersonations. My sense of unease shifted from the white walls of the prison to my own mental barriers that I had erected ignorantly, and on future visits, I began to see beyond the white walls. I started to notice that there was something other than firmly locked doors punctuating these walls – the posters and pictures celebrating the successes of the Correctional Services’ educational and wider community rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.

Indeed, the ‘paradigm shift’ from punitive to rehabilitative culture currently taking place in the Hong Kong penitentiary system was represented right there – a white wall slowly but surely being broken up, or should that be down, by vibrant rehabilitative efforts and achievements. A few months after beginning my volunteer work, a comment from an article about Lo Wu by Penal Reform International’s (PRI) policy director, Andrea Hubert, struck me. It claimed that ‘you can’t order a change from a punitive to a rehabilitative penitentiary system from the top down’. So, whilst I still believe reform efforts remain, and will remain a challenge to Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China for a long time to come, the progress made is indeed being built upon in the correct way – from the ground up.

As a final remark, I would urge anyone to volunteer at a prison – your overly-elaborate frog mime may play a far larger role in penal reform than you initially thought possible!

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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