I am Liza, a West African refugee aged 42, a single mother with two children and a founding member of the Refugee Union. I came to Hong Kong in 2011 to seek asylum after experiencing persecution in my country due to my political work, but this story is not about me.
I wish to share my thoughts about an informative visit in October 2014 to the Lo Wu Correctional Institute for women. I was very nervous about meeting this African lady that a friend in common had begged me to visit. Frankly I didn’t know what to talk about and even if she wanted to see me.
The inmate I visited is 35 years old and has three children she will not see for several years. It doesn’t matter what crime she committed as she admits having been naïve. She readily shared, “I made a mistake because I needed money to send my children to school. My family could not give me an education and for this I suffered so much. I wished for my children to go to school but I had no money.”
She told me freely the story of her childhood, her parent’s harsh life and the dire circumstances that landed her behind bars in a prison far away from home. She admitted that she acted stupidly to receive ‘big money’ in order to solve hers and her children’s necessities. But it didn’t work out the way she expected. She realizes now that she fell into a trap set by very cunning criminals.
My new friend recounted her story happily, surprisingly without bitterness or obvious regret. She said, “I don’t mind being in jail for such a long period because here I am achieving so greatly during my sentence and I am given opportunities that I never had before outside.” I was perplexed as I surely assumed that freedom is preferable to being in prison, so I asked her why.
She explained, “Here in prison I study various courses every day except on Sunday. For example: business management, human resources, speaking and writing English, computer classes and other social courses. I never had this chance all my life and I am finding that prison is a place for me to acquire some knowledge and improve myself. It’s a blessing in disguise!”
It was then that I learnt that inmates attend daily classes and even have to take exams. Those who succeed they are awarded certificates and graduate to higher levels in their courses. Then if someone fails, they can repeat the course and try again for the exam. Being in prison means they have no distractions and students can apply their time with full attention and learn fast with great support from dedicated teachers.
I learned that each year they attend new courses, depending on individual interests, needs, desires and priorities. The students can pick what they like and receive an education in the subjects that they think will be most useful after they are released. This is a great way for Prison Time to be productive time and for inmates to prepare for a better future and make an effort to turn their lives around.
At the end of our discussion my friend was so pleased because she said she will go out of jail well-equipped with knowledge, skills and techniques to apply nicely in sustaining her life and improve the future of her children. This is something she could not do before. Prison is turning her life around and eventually it will also have a positive impact on her family at large.
As the gates of the Lo Wu prison clanked closed behind me, a question popped into my mind: Why do convicted criminals have a chance to study in prison, while suffering refugees who escaped to safety in Hong Kong are prohibited from studying while forced to wait many years for a decision on asylum claims?