Young activists recall abuse at Hong Kong juvenile correctional facility

They tell of beatings and anal rape amid a rise in the youth prison population and clampdown on dissent.
By Hsieh Fu-yee for RFA Mandarin/The Reporter
2024.03.30
Young activists recall abuse at Hong Kong juvenile correctional facility Correctional officers keep watch outside Pik Uk Prison in Hong Kong on October 23, 2019
Philip Fong/AFP

Young political activists jailed under a crackdown on public dissent have described a litany of physical and sexual abuse inside one of Hong Kong's juvenile offender facilities, according to recent online reports and interviews with RFA Mandarin and The Reporter magazine.

While accounts of abuse and sexual assault by police officers and prison guards have emerged in recent years among former protesters and activists, not many have been confirmed or even fully investigated.

But on Jan. 19, a Correctional Services officer and five young inmates at the Pik Uk Correctional Institution were remanded in custody on charges of causing "serious bodily harm" to an 18-year-old inmate, including causing rectal perforations with a wooden implement, online court news service The Witness reported.

The victim required surgery and a stoma bag as a consequence of the attack, the report said.

The case prompted another young activist who had been detained in the same juvenile facility under the 2020 National Security Law to speak about another unreported incident there.

Wong Yat Chin, of the activist group Student Politicism, took to Facebook to talk about a rape and abuse and anal assault with a toothbrush perpetrated on a 15-year-old boy in Pik Uk, which houses young male inmates up to the age of 21.

"The 15-year-old boy was under duress and didn't dare to tell his family about the anal rape," Wong wrote. "It wasn't until he was hospitalized for persistent bleeding that Correctional Services officers called the police."

"A few months later, the police gave up the prosecution, saying there was insufficient evidence," wrote Wong, who was serving a three-year jail term in Pik Uk at the time.

The Correctional Services Department then issued a statement accusing Wong of "slander." But the Ming Pao newspaper later reported that a case sounding much like the one he described was reported to police on Jan. 30, 2022.

According to Wong, prison guards don't always carry out assaults themselves, but allow certain inmates known as "B Boys" special privileges to "discipline" fellow inmates.

He also described bullying and physical assaults he and his fellow inmates suffered at the hands of guards and other inmates acting under duress.

Youth prison population growing

Since the pro-democracy movement of 2014, the authorities have prosecuted large numbers of young people for taking part in "illegal" public gatherings, "rioting" and other protest-related charges, as well as more serious offenses like "terrorism" and "subversion" for peaceful activism under the 2020 National Security law.

According to the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department, the number of people in custody under the age of 21 rose from 4% to 6% of the total population, with a total juvenile prison population of around 450 as of the end of 2022.

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Hong Kong democracy activist Tony Chung poses in a bedroom in Britain on December 29, 2023 (Ben Stansall/AFP)

A former Pik Uk inmate who gave only the pseudonym Cheung Tz Hin for fear of reprisals told RFA and The Reporter that he recalls an incident in which guards had a group of seven cellmates squat down in a stairwell that wasn't covered by surveillance cameras after they sang the banned protest anthem "Glory to Hong Kong" in their cell the night before.

To their shock, Cheung and the others were slapped around by the guard.

"At first I thought he would stop short," he said. "I never expected he would actually hit us."

From time to time after that, guards would also shove Cheung and another cellmate around at random times, elbowing them and hitting them on the palms or the soles of the feet with a metal ruler, Cheung recalled.

Prison rules bar singing by inmates, but Cheung said exceptions were made for inmates who sang songs with no political content, for their own entertainment.

"It felt like the correctional officers were really selective, and targeted us in particular," he said.

Beaten within earshot

He said guards and their proxies used to take their victims to the stairwell behind the daily activities room, where the sounds of them being beaten would drift through for the other young inmates to hear.

One inmate would walk around on crutches after these assaults, he said.

"We could see a little [of what was going on] through a gap, but mostly we could just hear the sound of hitting, which was very regular," Cheung said. "We would see him walking around on crutches because the soles of both feet had been beaten."

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Hong Kong activist Wong Yat-chin, who founded a group called Student Politicism in 2020, poses during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong July 14, 2021. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

The attacks were to have tragic consequences. After four nights of this treatment, Cheung heard the guards gossiping about the boy's suicide attempt by drinking detergent.

He fell to the ground foaming at the mouth, and had to be sent to an external hospital for gastric lavage, Cheung heard them saying. He was later transferred to a forensic psychiatric facility at Castle Peak Hospital, but never returned.

"Usually, he would have come back to Pik Uk 14 days later,” Cheung said, “but I never saw him again, and I heard from the staff that he never came back from Castle Peak Hospital."

Hong Kong independence activist Tony Chung, who has served a 21-month jail term for "secession" under the 2020 National Security Law, spent some time after his release campaigning for the rights of other prisoners in Hong Kong.

He told RFA Mandarin and The Report that he once tried to help a teenage inmate "forced to have oral sex to the point of ejaculation" by another inmate at Pik Uk to file a complaint.

But he was never allowed to meet with the youth alone, only with another inmate who he suspected was actually the perpetrator of the alleged assault.

"The older inmate who was rumored to be the perpetrator asked him in a provocative tone of voice: 'Has someone been treating you badly? Tell me!' and the boy whispered 'No," and changed the subject, and that was that," Chung said.

More abusive than adult prisons

Chung, who is now seeking asylum in the United Kingdom and is once more wanted by the authorities, said juvenile institutions lend themselves far more readily to abuse than adult prisons for a number of reasons.

For example, guards and fellow inmates rarely show newcomers how to do their chores properly, offering ample opportunity for physical reprisals when they're not up to standard, he said.

"If you keep doing it wrong, they just beat you up," he said. "If you do it wrong again, they will gradually increase the level of violence if they find that you can't fight back."

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A correctional officer holds a video camera at Pik Uk Prison in Hong Kong, October 23, 2019. (Phillip Fong/AFP)

And according to Cheung Tz Hin, guards in adult prisons are a little more concerned about angering the wrong people in a city where criminal gangs, or triads, might target off-duty officers who have mistreated one of their own.

In the facilities for younger inmates, Chung said that any attempt to complain or investigate is met with stonewalling by prison guards, who cow prisoners into keeping quiet in the event of any inquiries.

Public data from the Correctional Services Department shows a total of 579 complaints filed by persons in custody over the past five years, with only 12 substantiated or partially substantiated following investigation.

Much of the reason for this is that guards and their favored inmates are well aware of the best blind spots in which to carry out their attacks, which are seldom picked up by surveillance cameras.

No one will speak up

In Hong Kong, one of the duties of the Justices of the Peace appointed by the Chief Executive and Chief Secretary is to “ensure that persons in custody are not be treated unfairly or exploited."

Justices of the Peace inspect the city's four juvenile detention facilities and halfway houses every two weeks or at least once a month, and would be an ideal channel through which to raise a complaint.

But nobody would dare to speak to them publicly in front of fellow inmates and guards, according to Chung and Cheung.

There was a flurry of public concern about prisoner abuse in Hong Kong when dozens of high-profile pro-democracy activists and opposition lawmakers were released from their sentences in the wake of the 2014 Occupy Central movement and the 2016 "Fishball Revolution" in Mong Kok. 

But the 2020 National Security Law forced many civic groups and prisoner charities to disband out of fear of further prosecution.

Chung said anyone advocating for prisoners in Hong Kong now faces the additional risk of prosecution under the new Safeguarding National Security Law, which took effect on March 23, as well as the 2020 National Security Law.

"I'm no longer in Hong Kong, so I don't have to worry about being accused of inciting people to hate the government," Chung said. "But others are still in Hong Kong, so I'm a bit worried about them."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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