Hong Kong heatwave prompts calls for cooler prisons, but lawmakers draw line at air conditioning for inmates

Ever-rising temperatures in Hong Kong have prompted calls for better ventilation in the city’s prisons, but activists and lawmakers remained divided over providing inmates air conditioning.

Former Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing and opposition activist Raphael Wong Ho-ming urged the Correctional Services Department last week to improve ventilation and cooling arrangements in prisons as Hong Kong would only get hotter with climate change.

Lau also suggested installing air conditioners, an idea shot down by former security chief Lai Tung-kwok, who told the Post: “Prisons don’t have air conditioners. That’s common sense and our common understanding.”

But Lau, a justice of the peace who visited prisons regularly to check on conditions and collect complaints lodged by inmates, explained her concerns about the heat saying: “This isn’t about relaxation, but human rights – the right to live and the right to health.”

Former lawmaker Emily Lau has urged prison authorities to improve ventilation and cooling arrangements. Photo: Edmond So

She said she did not suggest air conditioning in the past when it was not so hot, but the weather was becoming extremely hot now and some inmates described being damp with perspiration all day.

The Hong Kong Observatory has warned of a “significant long-term increasing trend” in temperatures from August to October. It predicted earlier that this summer could be one of the top 10 hottest summers on record.

Last year, the city had 52 “very hot days”, when the maximum temperature hit 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 Fahrenheit) or higher, the second highest annual total on record. Hong Kong tallied 29 “very hot days” in its first seven months of this year.

In the southern United States, high temperatures and heat-related deaths among prisoners have resulted in family members of inmates and prison advocates calling for air conditioning in jails.

The Texas Tribune reported at least nine prisoner deaths from reported heart attacks or cardiac events in prisons without air conditioning on days when outdoor temperatures exceeded 37.8 degrees from mid-June to mid-July this year. Most of the state’s 100 prisons have partial or no air conditioning.

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Sharon Dolovich, a law professor from the University of California, Los Angeles and director of its prison law and policy programme, told the Post that prison authorities should consider air conditioning to provide a humane correctional environment amid climate change.

She disagreed that providing physical comfort in prisons would reduce the deterrent effect, saying there was no evidence that criminals considered the conditions in jail when committing a crime.

Ultimately, she said, the deprivation of liberty and banishment from society were “a deeply harmful punishment to inflict on anybody”.

There have been no reports of heat-related deaths among Hong Kong prisoners, but Lau and activists who had been jailed and visited inmates in recent years said the city’s prison authorities could do more.

They said prisoners had to suffer sweltering heat made worse by old prison buildings with poor ventilation and insufficient cooling measures.

The Correctional Services Department said it had added fans and allowed its officers to buy handheld fans and cooling towels for inmates.

A dormitory room at Pik Uk Prison in Clear Water Bay. Photo: Dickson Lee

Replying to a letter from Lau, a spokesman for the Correctional Services Department said it had added or replaced 2,300 fans across all 29 correctional facilities since 2020, installed more than 15,000 electric fans and put more than 1,600 roller fans with anti-suicide designs in cells.

It also began retrofitting gates and windows at Stanley Prison in 2018 to improve ventilation, with 300 gates and 1,000 windows replaced so far.

The spokesman said other measures included using heatproof paint for buildings and installing solar panels or plants on roofs where suitable.

Figo Chan Ho-wun, a former convenor of the now-disbanded Civil Human Rights Front who was jailed 22 months for offences related to the city’s 2019 social unrest, recalled developing heat rash and waking up in the middle of the night during summer when he was at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre.

“The heat rash was on my arms, body, inner thighs, even on my back. It was really tough,” he said. “You couldn’t pull yourself together to write letters, you couldn’t read, you would sweat just sitting there.”

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The conditions were slightly better when he was transferred to Shek Pik Prison and was in a dormitory, not confined in a single-person cell.

He urged authorities to at least consider offering cool water to inmates, as only hot water or tea were available when he was in prison.

Raphael Wong, a former chairman of the League of Social Democrats who was jailed four times for protest-related offences, agreed that the ventilation in dormitories was acceptable.

But he asked prison authorities to improve conditions across institutions and holding areas for inmates. He suggested having shower areas in communal spaces, such as canteens, for inmates to cool down before or after meals.

Two lawmakers rejected Lau and Wong’s proposals, saying the prison authorities had already done what they could to improve conditions for prisoners during summer.

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Former security secretary Lai and Gary Chan Hak-kan, who chairs the Legislative Council’s security panel, said air conditioning was a luxury not enjoyed by many Hongkongers.

“I have great reservations about installing air conditioning, as resources are precious and after all, inmates are serving sentences inside. They are not there for enjoyment,” Chan said.

As for the suggestion to have more shower areas, Lai said that would strain manpower needed to oversee showers and the resulting damp would be another issue to deal with.

But he was confident the authorities would consider individual requests for more showers.


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