Hong Kong garden jail tours show addicts steered straight

A unique field trip in Hong Kong gives high school students a close-up look at life behind bars and at how an island prison is incorporating environmentally friendly practices into their rehabilitation programs.

Students brought face to face with jailed peers and island prison's environmentally friendly practices

Hong Kong's Hei Ling Chau island, home to four penal institutions, is no Alcatraz. The grounds of the 1.9 square km island boast colourful flowers and are meticulously landscaped — by inmates — a winding road provides scenic views of the South China Sea, and its remote location means an escaped inmate would have a long way to swim.

The island is also the destination for a unique high school field trip. Teenagers are brought to Hei Ling Chau three times a month as part of the Green Haven program, so they can get a first-hand look at life behind bars — and at some exotic wildlife.

The program is intended to promote both an anti-drug and pro-environment message. It emphasizes the dangers of drugs and showcases how Earth-friendly practices are incorporated into the inmates' rehabilitation programs.

Inmates at the Lai Sun Correctional Institute, a drug treatment centre for male youth, must do regular exercise in addition to education and vocational training. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The tour starts at the resources centre, where students see exhibits with fake drugs and paraphernalia, and graphic photos show them the ill effects of drug use. Then the students head over to the Lai Sun Correctional Institution, a youth addiction treatment centre that has about 80 inmates.

During their visit on a recent Friday, they saw teenagers like them in the midst of their physical exercise period, doing pushups and other drills on an outdoor basketball court, while nearby two new inmates were being instructed on how to march through the halls properly.

The teenaged criminals stay at the institution between two and 12 months, depending on the speed of their rehabilitation. In addition to the school courses, they get vocational training. There is a model hair salon and restaurant, so inmates can learn exactly how to work in them after they leave, and there's a bakery. Products from it are sold for charity at the city's autumn fair and sometimes donated to homes for the elderly.

Addicts share their stories

After getting a peek inside a dorm-style cell with 11 bunk beds, upon which the blankets must be folded in a particular way (there is a diagram on the wall as a reminder) by 6:30 a.m., the students went into a counselling room.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @fitzpatrick_m and Facebook: meaganfitzpatrickreporter.

Two young men, aged 16, wearing their blue prison uniforms, sat at the front of the room and stared straight ahead. They told their personal stories without ever making eye contact with the students.

They didn't like school, they were bored and rebellious and got talked into trying drugs, then selling them. Then they got caught. They described how taking drugs affected their minds and bodies (slow reaction time and blood in their urine were two examples) and how their friends all bailed on them.

The young men advised their fellow teens to choose their friends carefully.

"For sure, I will not commit a crime. I will be a good citizen," one of the students, Chung Wing-Yan, said through a translator after hearing from the young drug abusers.

"They're a similar age but they got in prison," 14-year-old Wendy Tsui said, adding she never thought anyone so young could end up behind bars.

Anthony Cheung, 16, said it is far more effective to hear the anti-drug message from someone his own age than from his parents, teachers or government.

"I can learn a lesson from what they're going through," he said. "It was a good chance to learn about the penal system," he added.

Inmates tend to plants, animals

The island prison tour then shifted to the pro-environment portion and showed the students the garden where inmates learn how to compost food waste from the four institutions (in addition to the youth drug treatment centre, there is one for adult males, a female minimum-security jail and a male medium-security one).

The inmates are also taught gardening skills. They grow a wide variety of plants and flowers that are planted all over the island. The soil is sold at Hong Kong's autumn fair, and the flowers are currently on display at the city's annual flower show, a major event for locals and tourists. Participating in those events is part of the correctional services department's community outreach program.

There is a big emphasis on trying to get the community to accept people once they're released and to give them a chance. There's even a TV show called The Road Back that is produced as part of that multi-pronged effort to help former inmates fit into society once they're out.

Staff say the garden also helps contribute to a peaceful environment which is important for recovering drug addicts.

Tending to the island's animals is another component of the rehabilitation program, meant to develop responsibility and other skills.

There are goats, turtles, parrots and cockatoos, rabbits and a chameleon. Some of the animals came from Hong Kong's border control agency after being confiscated when people tried to import them.

The island uses solar power as one of its energy sources, technology that is also used at other Hong Kong prisons.

Inmates interacting with animals is something that's done at five of Canada's federal corrections institutions, and renewable energy is being used at six institutions. Approximately 15 per cent of food waste is being composted according to the Correctional Service of Canada.

At the end of the day, the Hong Kong students literally took the pro-environment message home with them — they were given a small bag of soil and a seedling.

Not all of Hong Kong's prisons are like the ones on the picturesque Hei Ling Chau island, and as in Canada , the correctional service is dealing with overcrowded and outdated facilities.

But Chung Mo-yi, a rehabilitation officer who accompanied the students, is proud of where she works. "I think we are among the best in Asia — we have a quality service," she said.