The Black Box: My Experience in Hong Kong's Prisons During the Pandemic Lockdown
Prisoners have been harmed more by pandemic lockdown measures than by Covid
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My intention is for this to be the first in a series of articles about my second stint in Hong Kong’s prisons earlier this year. In truth, I’ve found it more traumatic than expected to recall and write about these events, so I’ll make no guarantees about future articles. But there is a lot to tell, and I promise I will do my best to share it with you.
A cancer-stricken 75 year-old political detainee housed in the same cell as me at Lai Chi Kok Prison had his court hearing canceled and was forced to remain locked up without bail, and without any indication of when he’d be able to seek release.
Hundreds of prisoners at Stanley Prison were locked alone in tiny cells for six weeks, only permitted out briefly every other day for a shower.
A dead prisoner’s corpse was left in a shared cell for hours, as other prisoners bunched together on the furthest wall in the small room to avoid getting too close.
This is just a sampling of the dire circumstances I encountered after I was sent to prison on February 8, 2022, just as Hong Kong began ramping up restrictions in response to a new wave of Covid infections. The Correctional Services Department (or CSD) quickly abandoned a wide range of prisoner rights previously considered essential under Hong Kong law. All personal, legal and consular visits were banned. All court dates were canceled, meaning that remand prisoners could not obtain bail or seek acquittal at trials. Prisoners were locked in their cells 24/7 with no work, no exercise, no socialization, and no entertainment. Food and medicine started to arrive at random times, if it arrived at all. Many letters to and from prisoners never reached their recipient, and letters that did arrive would come 2-3 weeks after they were mailed. Stressed guards became more combative and, occasionally, violent.
And while all this was happening, daily visits by welfare officers and senior officers, which are intended to protect prisoners from abuse, were canceled, leaving no one to whom prisoners could complain.
In short, CSD stripped away the most fundamental prisoner rights, then cut off communication between prisoners and the world outside. We were powerless to stop officials from denying our basic needs, and couldn’t even get the word out about what was happening. The result was a humanitarian crisis that strained the physical and mental health of every prisoner. At least three prisoners died under murky circumstances. None of the three tested positive for Covid.
The conditions I saw in those six weeks were at best dangerously chaotic, at worst outright criminal. Yet, they were par for the course in today’s Hong Kong, where previously cherished rights and liberties are tossed aside at the whim of those in power.
Rapidly deteriorating conditions
The High Court rejected my appeal on February 8, and I was sent to prison to serve the remaining six weeks of my sentence, first to Lai Chi Kok and, for the final two weeks, Stanley Prison. This was my second prison stint after spending nearly two months inside last summer.
Just five days before on February 3, CSD had announced it was suspending visits for prisoners due to Hong Kong’s “fifth wave” of Covid, during which the Omicron variant had swept through the city. Even lawyers and consular staff would be unable to visit, much less friends and family.
This ban posed problems beyond merely cutting off connections to the outside world: Under CSD policy, for a new prisoner to receive books, toiletries, notebooks, pens, or anything else, visitors must hand them in to CSD staff. These items can’t be mailed, nor bought by prisoners. By suspending friend and family visits, CSD was also ensuring newly-arrived prisoners would have no supplies, and nothing to pass the time. Yet, despite many people, including me, immediately realizing the implications and voicing concerns about this new policy, it would be weeks before prison officials would do anything about it.
My first two weeks inside were thus very challenging. I had nothing to read or write, though I fought daily for a shared copy of the newspaper, with limited success. In a stroke of luck, for reasons that were never clear, I was initially assigned to the medical ward, so I had access to a television, and my cell-mates kindly let me watch English news for 30 minutes per day. No other prisoners had this privilege outside of the medical ward, where prisoners were locked down in small sleeping cells (more on that below).
We were never permitted out of our cell. There was a toilet in the room, and both exercise and typical daily activities like work and recreation were banned. No letters arrived in those first several weeks either. We later learned that many letters had been rejected or had disappeared without explanation, while the ones that got through were on a two-to-three week delay.
With no visits, no calls, and no letters, we had no contact with the outside world. We were in a black box.
After two weeks, the prisons adjusted their policy to allow a single visit by a family member to hand in items for prisoners, though actually seeing the person was still prohibited. I was able to receive several books, a pen, and writing paper to occupy my time. But at no point in my six week stay was I, or any other prisoner, allowed to receive visitors—even lawyers and consular staff. Countless prisoners were left with canceled court dates and no way to provide any instruction to their lawyers. And in the midst of a health crisis, prisoners deathly worried about their elderly family members had no way to check on their well-being.
In another indication of the “special treatment” I received—presumably thanks to my passport and the political circumstances of my case—after two weeks I was allowed to have a phone call with the US Consulate. The officer who monitored the call told me with some annoyance in his voice that I was the only person in the entire prison system who had been afforded this privilege.
In mid-February we woke up one morning and prepared for breakfast, but our food didn’t come. After a couple of hours, a guard informed us that a prisoner in the kitchens had tested positive for Covid, so the entire kitchen staff had been quarantined. No one in the prison had received breakfast that morning. We were left to wonder when, or if, we would be able to eat that day.
Eventually around mid-day, a small meal of rice, cabbage and a sliver of meat arrived. These meals continued for two days before returning to standard prison fare (which, while not delicious, is at least nutritious and filling unlike the rice and cabbage). But never again would meal times be predictable: every day meals would come at random hours. Meat and milk products would often come spoiled, and sometimes meals would never come at all.
In the morning of February 22, we learned that a man had died overnight in his cell. Hospital staff, afraid to touch the body, left his cell mates in the room with the dead body for several hours while arrangements were made for removal. These prisoners crowded against a wall in horror as they waited for the body to be taken away. In the end, the man did not have Covid, and we were never told the cause of death. But he, like all of us, had been locked in his cell for weeks without his basic needs being met. The Government announced the news in a press release that left out pertinent details.
After three weeks, five of the eight people in my ward tested positive for Covid, so I was transferred from my relatively comfortable medical ward to M Block. M Block is a large building of crowded, dirty rooms designed only for sleeping. In normal times, prisoners leave the room first thing in the morning and return in the evening before bed. There are no tables or chairs—only hard metal beds and a toilet. And thanks to the widespread detention of political prisoners, all the rooms are overcrowded: my cell had a posted capacity of six people, but eight prisoners were sleeping side by side with no room in between beds. The environment would have been unsanitary and uncomfortable in normal times, but it was even more problematic during a pandemic.
I learned from my new cell mates that they had been stuck in this small bedroom for three weeks, only leaving once every day or two for a shower downstairs in the same building. They had little to occupy them. They spent their time smoking, chatting, and sleeping as much as possible. Many prisoners would take sleeping pills several times a day, which were handed out by staff on medical rounds—sleeping was the only way to pass the time any faster.
I was only in this cell for one night. The next morning, I tested positive for Covid myself. Like nearly all of the prisoners in CSD’s custody who eventually tested positive, I never had any serious symptoms.
I was then taken to a building on the other side of the prison called F-Block, a tower of single cells where most floors had been set aside for Covid-positive prisoners. In normal times, being in F-Block would have been a perk for me. I lived there last summer, and while many prisoners share their cell with one other person, I was allowed a single cell with some privacy. (I’m not sure if they thought they were protecting me, or protecting others from me, but I accepted the perk.) With the quarantine restrictions, however, it meant that I would be locked inside all day, isolated from everyone else. This quarantine lasted for 10 days, during which I only rarely got to interact with other people.
In this sort of isolation, one becomes unstable very quickly. Within a couple of days, I was talking to myself often. I would pace back and forth in the tiny room. My anxiety increased, and I began to become paranoid and irritable. I wasn’t the only one: I learned later that many of my fellow prisoners were experiencing similar symptoms. Human beings are social creatures, and we do not handle isolation well.
I take prescription medication each day. In normal times, I would go to the medical ward at the same time each evening and take it there. With Covid measures in place, however, medical staff was supposed to come around and give medicine to prisoners. But once I left the medical ward, the medicine delivery was sporadic at best. On three separate nights, I received no medicine, and had heart palpitations and dizziness all night until I could receive it the next day. The carelessness and disorganization of this process was extraordinarily dangerous for prisoners. I was fortunate that missing my medicine won’t kill me—it just makes me ill—but others might not have been so lucky.
On March 7, two more prisoners died—one from Lai Chi Kok and one from Stanley. The government reported the news with heavy emphasis on the two prisoners’ pre-existing conditions. The press release made no mention of the lockdown to which both men had been subjected prior to their deaths.
If rights can be discarded at will, they’re not actually rights
Most people believe that sacrifices must be made in order to fight the virus. I’m certainly on board with reasonable prevention efforts. But what was alarming about CSD’s approach in the prisons—and, for that matter, the Hong Kong Government’s approach across the rest of the city—was the total lack of balance to the measures. Far more harm was done to prisoners’ health and welfare by stripping away our already-limited rights and privileges than any harm caused by the virus. But that was irrelevant: all that mattered to CSD, and to the Hong Kong Government, was pandemic prevention. The Central Government had ordered “Zero-Covid” to be Hong Kong’s priority, and prisoner welfare wasn’t going to get in the way of that.
No right was too sacred that it wouldn’t be abandoned for the sake of appearing to fight the virus. “Appearing” is the key word here. While prisoners suffered from lockdown measures, the one thing that could have actually prevented the spread of Covid—daily testing and quarantine of infected prisoners—was only carried out in a diligent manner at the beginning. Several weeks into the outbreak, it became clear that the positive case numbers were not dropping. At that point, guards began to simply hand tests to prisoners and walk away. They emphasized to prisoners that a positive test would result in further isolation, along with all of their cell mates. Not wanting to be isolated further simply for having Covid, and not wanting to cause harm to friends in their group, prisoners learned to simply replace any positive test with a negative one from the day before. And as a result, CSD was soon able to report that confirmed positive cases were dropping off. In reality, it was merely diligent testing that was dropping off.
Rights, by definition, are guaranteed. They are not optional. What the Hong Kong Government thinks of as “rights,” it treats as only privileges that can be withdrawn whenever expedient. And that, I think, sums up the fundamental defect with the Government—and Beijing’s—approach to Hong Kong. In their world, no right, and no law, is too important that it can’t be set aside when it’s convenient to those in power.
Prisoners—among the most loathed and rejected members of society—have their rights enshrined in law for a reason: because without them, they will be abused by those who control their fate and care little for their welfare. And as Covid spread over Hong Kong, that’s exactly what happened.