Growing Covid-19 outbreaks at Hong Kong’s prisons have seen around 1,000 inmates testing positive for the virus over the past two weeks, with jailed pro-democracy activists reportedly among the infected.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Correctional Services Department (CSD) said the majority of the patients were at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, Stanley Prison, Lo Wu Correctional Institution and Pik Uk Prison. Most of the infections were asymptomatic cases.

Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The department added that patients and their close contacts will be quarantined. A third prison property – Phoenix House, a halfway house for recently discharged younger individuals – will be converted into a Covid-19 isolation facility.

Cape Collinson Correctional Institution in Chai Wan and Sha Tsui Correctional Institution on Lantau Island were emptied to be used as isolation facilities in February.

“The department will conduct virus testing for inmates while reducing crowds and interactions in the prisons,” the CSD wrote.

The figure means that around one in seven inmates at Hong Kong’s prisons have tested positive for Covid-19, a rate significantly higher than in the greater population. According to the CSD’s figures, the average daily number of detainees in custody between January and September 2021 was 7,358.

A Correctional Services Department vehicle leaves the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on April 7, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Hong Kong is in the midst of a raging fifth-wave outbreak, with daily infections in the tens of thousands and fatalities reaching new highs. Cases inside the prison system have grown exponentially in recent days; last Thursday, the CSD said it had confirmed 202 Covid-19 cases and 135 preliminary positive cases.

Political activists reportedly infected

Local media reported that jailed pro-democracy activists Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho and Koo Sze-yiu were among the inmates who tested positive.

Lee and Ho are understood to be asymptomatic, though they would be considered more vulnerable due to their age – Lee is 65 and Ho is 70.

Albert Ho arrives at the District Court on May 18, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Both were sentenced to jail over protest-related charges and are also awaiting a national security law trial. They, and the now-disbanded group Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China that they led, stand accused of incitement to subversion under the security legislation. The group was behind the annual Tiananmen crackdown vigils.

Veteran activist Koo was meant to appear in court for a bail hearing on Thursday, but he did not attend as he was feeling ill, local media reported. The 75-year-old has stage four cancer.

Koo was arrested by national security police last month ahead of a planned demonstration against the Winter Olympics last month.

Koo Sze-yiu and other members of the League of Social Democrats outside the Eastern Law Courts Building ahead of his sentencing. Photo: League of Social Democrats, via Facebook.

According to UK NGO Hong Kong Watch, there are 721 people – among them former pro-democracy lawmakers and long-time activists – who are in prison.

Staff shortage

As the virus continues to spread in prisons, the CSD said a manpower crunch is affecting “daily operations,” with around 1,000 staff unable to go to work because they tested positive for Covid-19 or have been listed as close contacts.

In response, the department is sending some workers, including those in the CSD’s Staff Training Institute and the Rehabilitation Division, to take up frontline work.

Tai Tam Gap Detention Centre. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“In view of the rapidly deteriorating virus situation in the community and the custodial environment of correctional institutions, infection figures among staff and inmates [are] expected to remain high in the coming weeks,” the department wrote in the statement.

Prison visits have been suspended since February 5. The CSD announced that it would extend the suspension to at least March 20 in light of the epidemic.

Hong Kong recorded 56,827 cases on Thursday and 1,358 deaths at hospitals. The number of new infections has increased by 74 per cent in three days.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.