SoCO (Society for Community Organization 香港社區組織協會)
Hong Kong, China
Nine weeks had flown past as I approached the end of my internship at SoCO in mid-July. After those weeks of in-depth research and discussions on how to improve the internal complaints system for inmates in prisons in Hong Kong, I, along with my project-mate Tracy, had compiled our research data and policy recommendations into a 30-page report, which was launched at a press conference soon afterward.
This study, “Report on Improving the Internal Complaints Mechanism in Prisons,” evaluates the current internal complaints channels available to inmates, which are (1) verbal complaints made to prison officers and (2) formal complaints made to the Complaints Investigation Unit (CIU). We compared the current system to the framework we developed based on existing international and Hong Kong standards, with an extra emphasis on the principles of accessibility, accountability, and transparency.
Through looking into 44 case studies and some relevant official complaint investigation reports, we identified three main problems with the current system, namely (1) the lack of mechanisms ensuring compliance with rules and regulations, (2) the lack of institutional support for complaints-making and processing, and (3) the lack of legal support and counsel—which is especially important because internal disciplinary hearings have allegedly been used as deterrents to frequent complaint-making.
On July 12, Annie (my supervisor) led Tracy and me in hosting a press conference to introduce our report and call for future meetings and discussion with relevant government agencies. These bodies include the Correctional Services Department (CSD) and the Office of the Ombudsman, which oversees the operation of prisons and procedural fairness in government respectively. This report launch came just in time, as there had been waves of news reports on alleged abuse of power by prison officers, including physical abuse, during those few months. At the press conference, we made nine main recommendations for CSD’s consideration:
- Introduce an Independent Equity Officer to improve accountability of complaints investigators and the system, and to increase transparency of the process.
- Introduce confidential complaints boxes to improve the accessibility and confidentiality of complaints-making.
- Publicize complaints procedures and forms.
- Extend the valid complaints period to ensure accessibility of a complaints-making mechanism for a longer period, until a fully effective and independent complaints-investigation process can be put in place.
- Mandate protective measures for complainants and witnesses.
- Establish systems for record-keeping to improve accountability and transparency of the system and investigations.
- Improve independence of internal hearings.
- Protect the right to counsel.
- Introduce an efficient complaints referral mechanism so complaints currently not under the purview of CSD can be referred to relevant departments and bureaus for follow-up in a timely manner.
On the day following the report launch, Annie was invited to a radio program (conducted in Cantonese; see sixth interview) to discuss the report and recommendations. A current prison officer responded by calling in and expressed his disagreement with the criticisms we had of the system and current practices. I was surprised—mostly pleasantly—at the “noise” we were able to make with our report in initiating more conversations on and a deeper look into the way inmate and detainee complaints are currently dealt with.
One of my biggest takeaways from organizing and being a part of the press conference was getting community organizing experience working with and preparing our clients for the event. The process of encouraging them to speak up and stay engaged in policy discussions related to them has not only allowed me to understand their situations on a deeper level, but also prompted me to do the same and speak up for myself.
Another thing I learned was the practical realities of—and at times, obstacles to—human rights advocacy and research on the ground. For instance, during the course of report-writing and outreach, we had to account for the long response time from government departments. When developing recommendations, we had to balance larger policy recommendations that serve more as guiding directions and principles and more “technical” recommendations that troubleshoot day-to-day operational issues, so that our proposals could be useful and feasible in both the short and long run.
But this summer experience has been way more than just about gaining hands-on experience in human rights advocacy and policy research focused on the criminal justice system. I had the great pleasure of working with and developing a close relationship with my co-workers, Tracy and Sharon, and of course with my amazing supervisor, Annie, who gave me unwavering support and guidance along the way. Their support, kindness, and passion for the work that they do has and will continue to inspire me to devote myself to the service of others.
Thank you, SoCO and all those great people I got to meet or work with, for this inspiring experience, and thank you again to the fellowship program for this wonderful opportunity!
Until next time 😊
References: Report on Improving the Internal Complaints Mechanism in Prisons. Society for Community Organization, Hong Kong, 2017, pp. 1–30, Report on Improving the Internal Complaints Mechanism in Prisons.