Opinion: A more humane approach to prison life offers lessons for Hong Kong

It is encouraging to see many in the community appealing for a second chance for young offenders in Hong Kong. While it is important to provide job opportunities for them after they have served their sentences, it is also crucial to make the incarceration period meaningful to better equip our young people for life.

The primary objective of any punishment is to rehabilitate offenders; this is also a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism. A recent site visit to Koper Prison, which was organised as part of the International Association for Suicide Prevention World Congress in Piran, Slovenia, last month, provided insights into good practices in rehabilitation and recidivism reduction.

Koper Prison is located in a lively part of the city, surrounded by supermarkets, shopping malls, and crowded streets. The prison, which has space for 110 inmates, sits conveniently in the centre of the community, and is quite integrated. Some 80 per cent of the inmates are non-Slovenian nationals from countries such as Italy, Belgium, Brazil and Russia.

Most of the men have been convicted of illegal entry and theft. The prison is very tidy and boasts rooms for exercise and leisure, a gym, a library, a store, and other facilities. Inmates are allowed two to four hours of outdoor activities per day, as required by the prison, and have the opportunity to shop twice a week.

They are allowed to purchase televisions and computers, but mobile phones are prohibited. The overall environment reflects a humanistic concern for the inmates.

The Slovenian prison system prioritises rehabilitation and aims to reduce reoffending rates. With a focus on humane treatment and innovative programmes, it places a strong emphasis on creating a rehabilitative environment for inmates.


Peaceful protests are part of Hong Kong city life and must return

Peaceful protests are part of Hong Kong city life and must return

In a departure from traditional punitive approaches, it recognises that simply locking people away does little to address the underlying issues that lead to criminal behaviour. Thus, the focus is on offering prisoners opportunities for personal growth, education and skill development.

Inmates are provided with access to a wide range of educational programmes, including vocational training, art classes and academic courses. They can borrow books from the library, which has a wide variety covering art, history, poetry and technology, translated into various languages.

Inmates who have not broken any rules can take on various jobs around the prison, including in the canteen, and are glad of the work. When prisoners are equipped with valuable skills and knowledge, it helps improve their chances of reintegration into society after release.

Also, recognising the link between mental health and criminal behaviour, Slovenian prisons prioritise the provision of mental health services to inmates.

Fifteen years ago, prison guards had to play multiple roles. They watched over the inmates, managed their daily lives, acted as their mental health counsellors and provided them with all-round care. In recent years, professional psychotherapists and doctors have been employed in prisons.

Trained professionals now offer counselling, therapy and support to prisoners to help them address the causes of their actions and develop coping mechanisms. By addressing mental health issues, Slovenia seeks to break the cycle of reoffending and promote long-term rehabilitation.

Slovenian prisons have implemented innovative community integration programmes aimed at fostering a sense of responsibility and accountability among inmates. These include day-release schemes that allow prisoners to work or study outside the prison under strict supervision. Such initiatives help prisoners gradually reintegrate into society, develop vital social skills and establish a support network.

Recognising the importance of family ties in reducing recidivism, Slovenian prisons actively support and encourage family visits. Regular contact with loved ones helps maintain familial bonds, provides emotional support, and serves as an incentive for prisoners to reform and rebuild their lives.

Inmates in Slovenia can catch up with their family members on a regular basis. Telephone sessions are set up, while inmates with good conduct are allowed to spend a few hours with their families in an unmonitored room. Foreign prisoners can talk to their families via Skype. Additionally, there are programmes to help prisoners develop healthy relationships and social skills to ensure a smoother transition back to family life on release.

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Slovenia’s commitment to rehabilitation and a reduction in reoffending rates has yielded impressive results. The country boasts a significantly lower recidivism rate than many other nations, which can be attributed to the holistic and humanistic approach taken by its prison system. The success of the Slovenian model should inspire other jurisdictions to reconsider their punitive approaches and adopt more rehabilitative measures.

The system’s emphasis on rehabilitation, education and community integration has proven to be a transformative force. By focusing on the individual needs of inmates, providing mental health support and promoting education and skill development, Slovenia has set an example for other regions seeking a more effective and humane approach to incarceration.

As a result of the 2019 social unrest, Hong Kong has had to deal with a large number of young, educated offenders. Perhaps Slovenia’s prison system offers valuable insights and inspiration for a better future for everyone.

Yiming Bai is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration of the University of Hong Kong

Paul Yip is an associate dean (knowledge exchange and development) of the Faculty of Social Science, the University of Hong Kong

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