HONG KONG – The gleaming skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour hide a troubling statistic. A little over 20 percent of the Hong Kong’s prison population are women – a higher proportion than any major nation in the world, according to the latest data compiled by the Institute Centre for Prison Studies.
“The numbers are staggering,” said Sharron Fast, a lecturer at Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Law.
“As special administrative regions of China, Hong Kong and Macau enjoy relatively greater freedom than mainland China – including a supposedly better justice system. But here lies one of the least-known public secrets.”
The high proportion of female prisoners in Hong Kong is emblematic of the situation in Asia. Four jurisdictions in Asia – Hong Kong, Laos, Myanmar and Macau – are ranked in the top five in terms of percentage of women in the prison system. The median of female prisoners in Asia sits at 6% of the continent’s total prison population, well above the global median of 4.4%.
Why Women Go to Prison
What is unique in Hong Kong’s penal system is not only the high proportion of female prisoners, but also the large share of foreign women among them.
Foreign women account for more than half of Hong Kong’s 1,773 female inmates, and hail primarily from mainland China, Vietnam and Indonesia, according to the data obtained from the Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department.
Nancy Kissel, an American woman jailed for life in 2005 for murdering her banker husband, is the most infamous female inmate in Hong Kong. But Kissel was an outlier: Most women in Hong Kong’s prisons were convicted of nonviolent crimes.
The majority of foreign women in Hong Kong are jailed for immigration violations such as working while on a tourist visa (a common conviction for foreign sex workers) and offenses against property (which includes theft), says the Correctional Services Department. The top two crimes that land local women in jail are offenses against property and drug-related crimes.
“Criminal justice data indicate that an increasing number of women are arrested for drug-related crimes,” says Gloria Lai, a senior officer at the Bangkok-based International Drug Policy Consortium.
“Women who have little formal education or who lack employment opportunities are those most frequently found to be involved in the drug trade.”
Imprisoning Mothers Affects Children
Venus Lau spent three and half years at Hong Kong’s Lo Wu prison for drug trafficking, having entered the trade to try to pay off her husband’s debts. The 38-year-old Hongkonger gave birth to a daughter, and raised the child inside the prison until Lau’s release in December 2014.
“I told the [prison’s] administrators that I was inside for a long time, and my child was growing up.”
“To limit her in the same space 24/7 was inhumane. There was really nothing for kids to play with inside. [My daughter] literally could only sit with me.”
Lau was able to care for her daughter behind bars until she was released because Hong Kong prisons allow children to stay in jail with their mothers until they are three years old. But women with longer sentences who stay in prison as their children grow up are forced to rely on relatives or foster care.
Zhang Wei, who was born and raised in mainland China and emigrated to Hong Kong with her family, did at least eight stints at drug rehab and prison in Hong Kong for addiction and drug-trafficking convictions for more than 24 years.
The 49-year-old said she started using drugs after the birth of her second daughter. When she entered jail, her youngest son was sent to foster care; her two older daughters were already living with their father, Zhang’s ex-husband. The last time Zhang was released from prison was in 2012.
“I tried every way [to kick the drug habit], but the only thing I lacked was faith,” she said. Today, she is out of prison and has a good relationship with her children.
According to the latest figures provided by Hong Kong’s prison authorities, 23 infants are currently living with their mothers in Hong Kong’s prisons. With women bearing the bulk of family care duties, activists say women’s incarceration can have devastating impacts on children and families. The incarceration of single mothers can be even be more damaging, since they are both the primary caregivers and breadwinners of their families.
Targeting the Vulnerable
Migrant worker activists in Hong Kong have warned that the city’s crime rings target domestic helpers in order to trick or coerce them into transporting drugs or laundering money.
Human traffickers also trap vulnerable women into prostitution, forcing them to work through debt bondage. Yet Hong Kong’s approach to trafficking tends to penalize victims.
For instance, women who originally come to Hong Kong with domestic worker visas but end up being forced to work in the sex industry are arrested for immigration violations. Sex workers’ support groups have criticized law enforcement for dismissing the women’s claims of trafficking as lies.
There are also cases of underage migrant workers, primarily Indonesian girls, who are given forged passports to work in Hong Kong. If they get caught, they too are prosecuted for immigration offenses. Such violations can be punished with a maximum fine of 150,000 Hong Kong dollars ($20,000) and imprisonment for up to 14 years.
Campaigners urge the government to treat the workers as victims of human trafficking, not as criminals, and call for Hong Kong to implement a comprehensive anti-trafficking law.
Justice Is Gender Blind
Some legal scholars argue that the situation in Hong Kong underscores a major flaw in the justice system. They say that because the law is viewed as gender neutral, it also tends to be blind to the systemic gender biases that are stacked against women.
“It can be an eye-opener to highlight some of the causative factors and the underlying structural issues that contribute to the present phenomenon of the feminization of Hong Kong’s and Macau’s prison population,” says Puja Kapai, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.
“Without attention to these underlying structures, there is little hope of addressing the problem at its source.”
Additional reporting provided by Kevin Lui.