Hong Kong’s prisoners don’t just stay in their cells all day. They help to make rubbish bins, fences and put together many other public services that you see every day.
Irene Leung Yin-ling, an officer from the industries and vocational training department based in Lo Wu Correctional Institution, says the Correctional Services Department wants to encourage inmates to establish good working habits and learn useful vocational skills.
One of the less familiar jobs the prisoners do is re-cover public library books to protect them and help them last longer. There’s another benefit to using prisoners to do this job. Public libraries need to outsource the work to someone, and as a very tricky and fiddly job, it would be expensive to pay a regular company. Inmates are a good source of cheap manpower for these labour-intensive tasks.
Intrigued, Young Post went to the Lo Wu facility to chat with a prison officer and an inmate to find out how it’s done.
Ah Ling (not her real name) is an inmate who started working in the bookbinding workshop a few months ago.
She says she used to be impatient, but she enjoys doing the bookbinding work as it has helped her learn to focus and taught her how to be patient. It has also motivated her to study for a degree while in prison, a course offered by the Open University of Hong Kong.
Each prisoner is given between HK$60 and HK$200 a week for working six days a week for approximately eight hours a day. As Leung explains, the pay is more like a reward than a salary because they already have accommodation and food.
The inmates who do the book re-covering are picked based on their existing skills, their personality, their behaviour and other factors.
There are 16 steps to re-covering a book, and each prisoner is in charge of one step. The production line isn’t particularly fancy or fast; it’s simply one room divided into different zones with some signs to mark the different areas.
While most of the people think the first stage of bookbinding is separating the cover from the rest of the book, the first step is actually scanning the barcode to make sure the book doesn’t go missing.
As Leung explains: “This is to ensure books transferred to the Correctional Institution are all tracked and recorded, and make it back to the library.”
After scanning the barcode, the original book cover is removed by hand. Ripping a book cover off might sound like an easy process, but Ah Ling and Leung say it needs to be done in a specific way.
If it’s not done properly, the book cover could be torn apart. Ah Ling says this does happen sometimes, but they can glue it back together at a later stage.
The 16 steps are quite complicated, but essentially the prisoners take a paperback book, remove the cover, then cut some stiff cardboard to the size of the book.
They then glue a piece of paper onto the cardboard, then glue the original cover onto this piece of paper. The cardboard cover is then laminated.
While one set of prisoners is preparing the cover, another group punch several small holes in the actual stack of the book’s pages. The stack is then carefully sewn together using a needle and thread.
Once this is sewn together and the strengthened cover has been laminated, they glue the hard cover back onto the book.
From the first step to the last, it takes more than 45 minutes to complete one book.
Working together, the prisoners can re-cover up to 150 books every day.
Young Post couldn’t stay all day to count, but here's a step-by-step video of prisoners putting a book together at Lo Wu Correctional Institution.