The 13-month prison sentence imposed on Joshua Wong has rightly attracted a lot of attention. This has rather overshadowed a less spectacular but still interesting matter, which is what happened when he was first detained in November.

When you are remanded in custody in Hong Kong you are taken to a place called the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. This name is not a mere euphemism for Lai Chi Kok Prison: it recognises an important difference.

Joshua Wong. File photo: Studio Incendo.

People who are remanded in custody pending trial are not convicts. The remand is not a punishment, because in our system you are presumed to be innocent until the trial. Keeping people in custody before the hearing is supposed to be a rather reluctant concession to some practical needs: to ensure that the defendant turns up, does not repeat the crime, and does not interfere with potential witnesses.

When I was still a full-time reporter I used to receive occasional suggestions from people who had been unwilling guests at Lai Chi Kok that conditions there were scandalously Spartan. The official response to requests for comment on this was that the facilities were simple because stays were expected to be short.

In that respect, alas, times have changed. It used to be supposed that the defendant had a right either to a speedy trial or to be freed on bail while the prosecution got its act together.

Standards in this matter have slipped. I notice that by the time Mr Tam Tak-chi stands trial for a number of legal antiques alleging “subversion,” he will have been in custody for nine months.

Back to Mr Wong. It seems, according to a “ letter from prison” on his Facebook page, that upon his arrival in the Reception Centre on November 23 he was X-rayed. The correctional X-ray interpreter decided that there was some unexplained object in his stomach.

The nature of this object was apparently quite unclear. It “could be drugs, rings or gold and silver objects,” Wong was told.

Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

He was then placed in a cell on his own. The cell light was on at all times. He used a blindfold to sleep, but was woken every four hours to have his blood pressure and oxygen saturation checked. He was not allowed the usual hour of outdoor exercise.

He was required to defecate … to hell with the euphemisms … he was ordered to shit on a plate. This had to be handed to a Correctional Service officer who checked the output for drugs, rings, gold and silver objects etc. After the inspection of the plate, Mr Wong was required to sign an “isolated observation form”, whatever that is.

He had to pee in a washbasin. It did not have running water. He was subjected to further X-rays. He was not allowed to see the results but they cannot have shown very much because — after three days — no gold and silver objects or other treasures had appeared. So it seems there was nothing unusual in Mr Wong’s stomach at all. He was then allowed to mix with the other prisoners, take exercise, etc.

This story raises a number of questions of the kind which one might once have hoped would be asked by some alert Legislative Councillor.

The first one is: are all new arrivals at the Reception Centre routinely X-rayed? This is a medical procedure which usually requires the patient’s consent. There are hazards attached to exposure to X-rays, which is why if you have one in a hospital the camera operator invariably leaves the room before the actual picture is taken.

They do not have to worry about undetected pregnancies in Lai Chi Kok, because the Reception Centre only admits males. Still, some people may be harmed by exposure. And after all, a remand prisoner is not a convict. He does not have the right to leave; that does not mean he loses all his other rights as a citizen and as a human being.

If the X-ray is not applied to all new arrivals, it raises another question: why was Mr Wong singled out for the privilege? Mr Wong is, whatever you think of his politics, an unlikely dope dealer. Why anyone would want to smuggle personal jewellery into the Reception Centre is not clear.

Ivan Lam (left) and Joshua Wong (right) on their way to court.

Then we may wonder what it is with the recurring visits for tests of blood pressure and oxygen saturation? Was this a medical necessity? Did the repeated X-rays show anything, and if not why did Mr Wong’s solitary confinement continue?

Interpreting X-rays is notoriously tricky. The matter has been much studied and error rates in the range of 20-40 per cent are commonly found. More disturbingly, in one experiment where the radiologists were offered the same X-ray picture again they disagreed with themselves about 20 per cent of the time.

I shall not name the rather prestigious and expensive Hong Kong hospital which, having sent me home with a clean bill of health, telephoned the next day to say that on a second look at my X-rays they had detected a broken leg. It happens.

If, when it happens, you are confined to a toilet for three days with the light on and constant interruptions, you are entitled to wonder what is going on. And if you have in fact eaten nothing abnormal you may wonder, when the X-ray is repeated, whether any of the people looking at it know what they are doing.

I have some good friends in the Correctional Services Department. I am sure most of the correctional people are humane and benevolent individuals sincerely trying to do the best they can for the people in their custody. I recognise also that the staff at Lai Chi Kok cannot choose their guests, some of whom are a rough bunch.

However, you need more faith in the milk of human kindness than I can muster to look at the way Mr Wong was treated and shake off the suspicion that someone in Lai Chi Kok thought it would be a good idea to give him a hard time because of who he is. This is not supposed to happen.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.