Hong Kong’s jails have highest proportion of women inmates, but figures skewed by large number of foreign sex workers
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on December 28, 2015.
Hong Kong’s prison system has the highest proportion of female inmates in the world – but local experts say the figure is skewed by the proliferation of foreign sex workers and that the female prison admission rate is actually falling.
Females account for about 19.4 per cent of the city’s prison population, the highest proportion out of 219 prison systems worldwide discounting three countries with national populations under 60,000, said a report from the London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research.
“The figure is being driven by women coming from abroad and engaging in work where they are basically in breach of immigration ordinances,” said Karen Joe Laidler, a sociology professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies criminal justice and gender issues. “It is highly unusual, the fact that the proportion is higher than in any other country. [But] the number of women being admitted to prison in Hong Kong is in decline.”
In Hong Kong, the number of women in custody dropped by about 9.5 per cent from 1,776 to 1,607 from 2012 to 2014, according to the Correctional Services Department. The female prisoner admission rate fell by about 68 per cent from 2005 to last year.
The women’s prison population worldwide has outpaced men, growing to over 700,000 – doubling since 2000 – with those in the United States, China and the Russia representing about half the total population, the London think tank report said.
Females account for 2 to 9 per cent of the population in about 80 per cent of prison systems worldwide. Systems in Asia have the highest proportion, while African systems have the lowest.
According to Laidler, sex workers from mainland China and other countries working without employment visas are breaching their stay conditions and often engage in related illegal activities like soliciting. These women are particularly vulnerable to incarceration because they work in public settings where they are easily detected by law enforcement.
“Although the trend has declined quite significantly, those remain the key issues,” Laidler said, adding that women in Hong Kong prisons served relatively short sentences of roughly three months.
Local women accounted for half of the female prison population, a CSD spokesman said.
“Take away these mainlanders and foreign female prisoners’ figures, the local Hong Kong girls’ conviction rate is more or less the same as in other countries, though a bit high with female drug abusers,” said Kalwan Kwan, a sociology professor at HKU.
Alfred Mak, a retired senior CSD officer and former director of the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers, said Hong Kong courts seldom used deportation to reduce the prison population, resulting in a congested foreign penal population.
Women in particular also required gender-specific services and counselling to deal with the psychological strain of being locked up, he added. “These people are not experienced or hard-core prisoners. One big difference [for females] is the expectation of pregnancy,” Mak said.
A CSD spokesman said that the department evaluated all female prisoners and offered counselling and rehabilitative services in areas like family and marital, and drug abuse.
The department runs playrooms where women can receive visits from children under the age of six and institutions where infants under three can be taken care of by their jailed mothers.
“The services that CSD provides is really good. They are attentive to gender issues,” Laidler said.
A Filipino woman who carried HK$1.77 million worth of cocaine to Hong Kong in February while she was four months pregnant gave birth to a baby boy while in custody. She was jailed on Tuesday for 14 years and 8 months.