Hong Kong officials visit Baker City prison

October 04, 2002 12:00 am
James Simpson, left, explained to Yat-Kin Sin, center, of the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department, how inmates at the Powder River Correctional Facility use computers in various printing contracts. Powder River's Dave Rempel, third from right, guided Sin and three of his colleagues on a tour of the minimum-security prison Thursday afternoon. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
James Simpson, left, explained to Yat-Kin Sin, center, of the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department, how inmates at the Powder River Correctional Facility use computers in various printing contracts. Powder River's Dave Rempel, third from right, guided Sin and three of his colleagues on a tour of the minimum-security prison Thursday afternoon. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Hong Kong has a long list of sights never seen in Baker City.

Skyscrapers, for one thing — dozens of them packed into a place several sizes smaller than Washington, D.C.

Millions of people, for another.

But Baker City can boast at least one attribute that impressed even the jaded eye of a Hong Kong resident accustomed to largesse.

Corn.

Big yellow ears of it, with kernels the size of green Monopoly houses.

"These corns are huge — I never see such corn in Hong Kong," said Chiu-Nam Chan, one of four officials from Hong Kong's Correctional Services Department who toured the Powder River Correctional Facility Thursday afternoon.

Chan was walking through the gleaming stainless steel aisles of Powder River's kitchen when he noticed an inmate unloading a crate of the jumbo-size corn.

Chan was astonished not only by the size of the ears, but on learning that inmates grew the corn themselves.

Inmates in Hong Kong sometimes grow flowers to decorate prison grounds, but they don't raise the very food they eat, Chan said.

It's just this sort of innovative program Chan and his colleagues hoped to learn about during their trip to Oregon. Cost savings of any amount are welcome, he said — Hong Kong spends about $100 (in U.S. currency) per inmate per day, compared with Oregon's $62.

The Hong Kong contingent has spent the entire week in Oregon, visiting prisons across the state. The quartet's final stop was today at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario.

The Hong Kong officials chose Oregon after they learned, through the Internet, that this state's prison system employs high-tech equipment that could improve Hong Kong's institutions, said Yat-Kin Sin, superintendent of emergency support.

After touring Powder River and several other Oregon prisons, the Hong Kong group was impressed by the state's alarm systems, and by its use of computers in all aspects of running prisons, Sin said.

Hong Kong's 24 prisons are older than most of Oregon's, and compared to facilities such as Powder, are obsolete in both design and operation, he said.

Powder River's dormitories are larger than those in a similar-sized Hong Kong prison, Sin said, the latter lacking areas where inmates can watch television, type letters or read.

Hong Kong prisons also employ more guards, he said – relying more on "direct supervision" than Oregon facilities, with their modern security systems, need to do.

Yet the similarities between Hong Kong's prison system and Oregon's actually outnumber the differences — and by a considerable margin.

As in Oregon, Hong Kong maintains minimum-, medium- and maximum-security prisons, Sin said.

And like Oregon does, Hong Kong reserves its maximum-security beds for inmates who commit more serious crimes; people convicted of lesser offenses do their time in medium- or minimum-security institutions.

Probably the most common serious crime in Hong Kong is trafficking in what the government deems "dangerous drugs," Sin said. "These include heroin, ecstasy and marijuana."

People convicted of possessing large amounts of such drugs can be sentenced to very long prison terms, some essentially equating to life terms for older inmates, Sin said.

Violent crimes such as murder and armed robbery are relatively rare, he said, due in large part to the scarcity of guns.

Citizens are not allowed to keep any firearm, including rifles, in their homes in Hong Kong, Sin said.

The few people who belong to shooting ranges must store their guns at a police station, and they are allowed to remove the guns only when they've arranged to shoot at a range, he said.

Hong Kong segregates inmates by gender, as does Oregon, but also by age to a greater extent than here, Sin said.

In Hong Kong, most convicts 25 and younger are incarcerated in separate facilities, he said.

Each country uses similar techniques to try to rehabilitate young inmates and reduce the odds they will return to prison.

Hong Kong, for example, operates "detention centers" that Sin said are essentially equivalent to Oregon's boot camps. Hong Kong's system also includes centers designed specifically to treat inmates addicted to drugs or alcohol — an approach familiar to the Powder River officials who run an award-winning drug and alcohol treatment program.

Sin said young inmates in Hong Kong prisons must attend classes half the day, and vocational training the other half.

Chinese law requires older inmates to work a full day, a concept Oregon voters turned into law in 1994.

Again, the methods of adhering to those laws are similar between the two countries.

As in Oregon, Hong Kong allows only minimum-security inmates to work outside the prison walls.

Inmates in medium- and maximum-security prisons build most of Hong Kong's street signs, Sin said. They also sew uniforms for police officers, and assemble most of the furniture used in government offices.

Hong Kong officials also try to wring the most from their prisons by encouraging guards and other employees who are qualified to spend extra time at work teaching inmates, Sin said.

Attracting teachers to work in prisons is difficult, he said, because the institutions are in remote areas away from the densely populated parts of Hong Kong, and thus require long commutes in the areas bustling traffic.

Actually, densely populated, by Baker County standards, is a rather egregious understatement.

Hong Kong's more than 200 islands add up to a land mass less than one-seventh the size of Baker County, yet Hong Kong's population is almost7 million, compared to Baker County's 16,700.

Or to put it another way:

Hong Kong squeezes about 17,000 people into each square mile.

Baker County gets by with 5.

Great Britain started the colony of Hong Kong in 1842, so it's no surprise that Hong Kong's prison system is based on the British model.

And that's still the case, Chan said, even though five years have passed since Great Britain returned control of its former colony to Chinese control.

And if crime statistics are meaningful, that transition has been relatively placid.

Despite boasting a population more than twice as large as Oregon's, Hong Kong's prison system confines just 1,000 more inmates than Oregon's prisons — about 12,000 to 11,000.

Based on Chan's and Sin's descriptions, it would seem that an inmate transferred from a Hong Kong prison to Powder River, or vice versa, might not find as many differences as he expected.

For example, besides having to work or study, as their Oregon counterparts do, Hong Kong inmates are allowed to exercise and play sports, Sin said.

The most popular games are volleyball, basketball, ping pong and soccer.

Still, an inmate from Hong Kong might be surprised by something other than those jaw-stretching ears of corn.

Sin, standing next to the smooth field of sand beneath Powder River's outdoor volleyball court, said there's at least one sport Hong Kong inmates can't play.

"We have volleyball," he said, gesturing toward the sand. "But we don't have beach volleyball."