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Published: 00:38, September 14, 2021 | Updated: 10:32, September 14, 2021
Prisoner radicalization: Protecting inmates and reforming fanatics
By Grenville Cross
Published:00:38, September 14, 2021 Updated:10:32, September 14, 2021 By Grenville Cross

On Dec 31, 2020, at the Correctional Services Department’s 100th anniversary celebration, the commissioner, Woo Ying-ming, committed himself to leading it into “a new era in the aspects of safe custody, rehabilitation work and community education”.

The CSD has a proud history, and is rightly regarded as one of the most successful prison services in the Asia-Pacific region. Dedicated to protecting the public and preventing crime, it deploys a multifaceted strategy to promote what it calls “law-abiding and inclusive values”. Its rehabilitation program is state-of-the-art, and prioritizes a “secure, humane, decent and healthy custodial environment”.    

In 2020, the CSD handled 6,594 sentenced persons, with a further 5,373 persons being held on remand. Although the bulk of those in custody were detained for traditional criminal offenses, an increasing number were held in relation to protest-related crimes, with some also accused of national security violations. This, inevitably, has affected the complexion of the prison population, as well as its internal discourse.

In 2015, Penal Reform International reported that it had been aware for some time that “prisons can play a critical role in both triggering and reinforcing the radicalization process”. In some places, prisoner radicalization is now a huge problem, and internal arrangements have been reformed. In Europe, for example, many penal institutions have become breeding grounds for Islamic extremism, and this has resulted in terrorist outrages. In 2018, the head of Germany’s prison officers’ union, Rene Muller, said inmates “are easy prey for those who are out to radicalize prisoners”.

The CSD (Correctional Services Department) must not only try to ensure that ordinary inmates are not radicalized, but also that people who appear beyond redemption can see the light. If, for example, hardened robbers, thieves and sex offenders are considered capable of reformation, there is no reason to despair of hardcore fanatics and ideologues. Prisoner radicalization, moreover, needs to be addressed holistically, with a full range of countermeasures

Radicalization can take many forms, and is certainly not confined to religious indoctrination. In 2015, when the Council of Europe issued its guidelines on countering prison extremism, it described radicalization as “a dynamic process whereby an individual increasingly accepts violent extremism”, concluding that the reasons behind the process could be “ideological, political, religious, social, economic or personal”. As inmates are often vulnerable individuals with low self-esteem and limited learning, the fanatics may have little difficulty in influencing their thinking, particularly when they are detained for a substantial period.

Within Hong Kong’s correctional institutions, the corruption of inmates has invariably been associated with traditional criminality. Triad elements, for example, have tried to influence prisoners, while organized crime gangs have sought recruits for particular assignments. Although the CSD monitors what goes on as closely as it can, it cannot possibly neutralize every such menace. Until recently, however, it basically knew what to look out for, although this may now be more difficult, as politics increasingly infects the penal system.

Since 2019, hundreds of rioters and other fanatics have been imprisoned for their involvement in the insurrection. Other people, accused of national security offenses, are also being detained on remand for long periods. There is no reason to suppose that most of these people have renounced their core beliefs, and there are real fears they are trying to cause serious problems, whether by proselytizing or otherwise. Indeed, Woo has warned that some national security suspects are exercising “unprecedented influence” in the prisons, and have to be constantly monitored.

Although empirical evidence suggests that fanatics are less likely to influence others if, as in Hong Kong, prison conditions are good, with little overcrowding, they can still make headway. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has noted how charismatic individuals are adept at exploiting emotional triggers, such as hatred, revenge and frustration, and then promoting extreme ideologies that favor violent extremism in pursuit of their goals, and Woo has, in terms, confirmed this is already happening here.

In his recent book, Unfree Speech, the professional agitator, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, described his early days in custody, saying “there’s a huge amount of political views here”. He claimed the “younger prisoners tend to be yellow ribbons”, which, if true, makes them ideal targets for anybody wishing to radicalize them and turn them against their country.  Although Wong did not disclose the extent to which, if any, he sought to influence his cellmate — he only had one — or other inmates, he mentioned, intriguingly, how his fellow prisoners often asked him, “How much do they pay you to do your political stuff?”

Since Wong’s book was published in January 2020, things have undoubtedly deteriorated, given the political stances of many of the more recent prison inmates. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that radicalization only comes about through open practices, and not to acknowledge that softly, softly tactics also play their part. On Aug 27, for example, it was reported that the ex-legislator and national security suspect, Claudia Mo Man-ching, was teaching English to fellow inmates at the Lo Wu Correctional Institution. However surprising, it must be hoped that English is all she is teaching them, and that they are not also being exposed to the vile political ideas which caused such harm in 2019. She is, moreover, maintaining close contacts with Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, the protest movement sympathizer, who often visits her, and her former colleague, Shiu Ka-chun, of “Occupy Central” infamy, although their exchanges with her have not been disclosed.

The Lo Wu facility, where Mo has been detained for over six months, is a medium- security facility for the detention of female adults, whether after conviction or on remand, and some extraordinary events have played out there in recent days. On Sept 2, the CSD discovered “prohibited articles” in the possession of six inmates, allegedly including ex-district councilor Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai, during a surprise raid, and disciplinary action was taken. The CSD said it had “received intelligence in recent days that individual remand prisoners in custody have attempted to build up forces and incited others to participate”.

The same day, 18 prisoners organized a protest, designed to force the authorities to rescind the disciplinary measures. The Regional Response Team (“the Black Panthers”), together with a dog unit, had to be called in to restore order. Following a three-hour operation, the CSD explained that, after inmates had “exerted pressure” on front-line staff, it became necessary “to remove 18 persons from association for investigation”.

As for Yuen, she was earlier sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for her involvement in an unauthorized assembly, and now faces trial on a national security charge. On May 21, she was expelled from her District Council seat in Tin Wan, for not meeting the requirements of upholding the Basic Law and pledging allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Although it is not known what, if anything, she has been telling the other inmates, she is now reportedly in solitary confinement, and will certainly not be able to radicalize anybody from there. 

On Sept 7, the secretary for security, Chris Tang Ping-keung, revealed that outside groups were working with remand prisoners to recruit followers and “build forces” to endanger national security. Potential recruits were being wooed with minor gifts, such as chocolates and hair clips, and, once onboard, they were being encouraged to resist the authorities. These efforts, he said, were being supported by prison visitors, who were also giving the inmates “inciting words”.

Tang also condemned the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which is itself subject to criminal investigation, for sending letters to inmates. He said some organizations were using letters to urge prisoners to “continue with their struggle”, and this would “severely affect the rehabilitation program of the persons in custody, and will spread the seeds of endangering national security”. However, the 612 Fund is certainly not the only letter-writer, and Wall-fare, founded by Shiu Ka-chun, is similarly engaged.

Although Shiu claims the letters his group sends to prisoners are for sharing religious beliefs and providing emotional support, great caution is still necessary. While he insists, contradicting Tang, that “resistance” can simply mean resisting one’s fate, the CSD may not be familiar with any coded messages the letters may contain. Shiu himself received eight months’ imprisonment in 2019, for the two public nuisance offenses he committed during “Occupy Central” in 2014, and one of his sidelines these days is to post letters on his Facebook page from the likes of Claudia Mo.   

Although Tang is quite correct in saying that the CSD will be as “professional and fearless as usual”, the radicalization of inmates requires novel responses. Apart from anything else, its staff must be trained to recognize the early signs of indoctrination, and understand how best to protect vulnerable people. Those seeking to corrupt others will not usually proselytize openly, but will gradually exploit the personal relationships they establish over time, perhaps winning them over with promises of employment in the “yellow economy” on release. Subtlety is often their key, and only when their victims have been fully softened up will they make their move. Officers, therefore, must be on the alert for any telltale behavior, such as unexpected hostility or disrespect of national mores.

The CSD, to reduce plotting, is already dispersing politically dangerous inmates around its facilities, and it should also strictly control contacts between inmates and visitors with suspect backgrounds. Woo says prison visits are now “insanely frequent”, and if, for example, somebody was involved in the social disorder of 2019 in any way, it will rarely, if ever, be appropriate to allow them access to people undergoing detention for protest-related or national security crimes. Even if their conversations are closely monitored, nuanced terminology containing instructions may not be detected by the average officer. Like considerations apply to letters and electronic communications, which can so easily be abused by coded messaging experts.     

Although much is said these days about patriotic and moral education in the schools, related programs also clearly have a role in penal institutions. Indeed, counter-radicalism programs could also be a useful feature of the overall prison curricula, at least until things have fully settled down. Although the CSD certainly has some tough cases on its hands, whose antipathy towards China is visceral, this should not deter it from trying to enlighten even the most prejudiced individuals. 

In some places, fanatics are, as a protective measure, separated from other inmates, whom they might otherwise try to influence, and Hong Kong should take note. In the UK, for example, Islamic extremists are often kept well away from the general prison population, with solitary confinement remaining an option for particularly dangerous individuals. In Australia, dedicated prison programs are available for radicalized prisoners, with every effort being made to wean them away from extremist ideology. Imams, moreover, are also sometimes retained to provide inmates with balanced religious perspectives, and to expose heresies. If, therefore, lessons can be learned from elsewhere of what works and what does not, this will assist the CSD’s efforts to counter radicalization.

Quite clearly, the CSD must not only try to ensure that ordinary inmates are not radicalized, but also that people who appear beyond redemption can see the light. If, for example, hardened robbers, thieves and sex offenders are considered capable of reformation, there is no reason to despair of hardcore fanatics and ideologues. Prisoner radicalization, moreover, needs to be addressed holistically, with a full range of countermeasures. While society can benefit from an offender’s incarceration, its longer-term security lies in the rehabilitation of those who pose dangers, whether political or otherwise. If, one day, they can be successfully reintegrated back into the city they once sought to harm, the nation as a whole will stand to benefit. 

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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