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Reflections on prison ministry in Hong Kong

Father Patrick Colgan
On leaving Hong Kong late last year, I decided to put on paper a few thoughts on leaving a large number of friends, who also happen to be prisoners in Hong Kong’s Correctional Services’ institutions. 
I first developed an interest in prison ministry in Fiji, where I often celebrated Sunday Eucharist with inmates at Korovou (Suva) Jail. I also occasionally went to Naboro Maximum Security and then Nukulau island prison (on a small and often rickety prison boat) where the 2006 Fiji coup leaders were being held. 
Conditions in all these places were basic, or less-than-basic; by and large, relationships between prisoners and guards, though, were friendly and informal. Coming to Hong Kong in 2012, knowing that my ignorance of Cantonese was going to limit, quite radically, my ability for pastoral outreach within the diocese, I thought to volunteer for prison work in the expectation that I might meet three or four English speakers—local or foreign—whom I could minister to. 
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I encountered not three or four, but hundreds of foreign inmates, spread over the five prisons I was authorised to visit, many of whom, having heard I was a Catholic priest, came crowding around me, shaking my hand vigorously, some telling me they hadn’t seen a padre for years— “When you are saying Mass? Can you hear my confession? Can you phone my wife? Can you buy me a dictionary? Can you sponsor my child’s studies?”...
I came home quite overwhelmed and wondering if it was wise for me, given my other duties, to go any further with this ministry. How could I possibly do it? Where would I find time? Maybe these peoples’ concerns were “not my problem” and so on. 
I wrestled with these thoughts for a number of months and eventually decided, “well, if I am going to do this, I will do it wholeheartedly.” One of the first tasks was to try to learn some Spanish, as almost one half were South Americans, the rest Africans, as well as groups from Pakistan, India, Malaysia and the Philippines . 
Because it is such a global hub, Hong Kong attracts wealth, and its underbelly of money laundering and people trafficking. It is also unique among its South East Asian neighbours as it has no death penalty and is a signatory to the United Nations’ Declaration Against Forcible Return to a Location of Persecution. Both of these factors, allied with the desperation of many millions of African and Latin American poor, contribute to the very high incidence of drug trafficking. 
There are syndicates in most South American nations, who send mules to Asia via Johannesburg, Dubai, Addis Ababa and Bangkok, in any of which places their stomachs or suitcases are loaded with ‘capsules’ for onward transport to Hong Kong. 
Oblate Father John Wotherspoon began a campaign three years ago whereby if a foreign drug mule wrote their story and assented to having it uploaded to his blog page, as well as placing it on Facebook or newspaper blogs of their country (as warning to others not to fall into the same trap) , and Father Wotherspoon produces this in court, some judges have been willing to give a reduction in sentence. 
Father Wotherspoon has also visited seven African nations, as well as 10 in Latin America, to press home the same message to any media outlet or government official who agreed to meet him. Results of this campaign have been impressive. The number of apprehended African and South American mules have decreased year-on-year since 2014, even as arrivals from Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh sadly have mushroomed. No doubt the cartels have adapted to changed circumstances and will continue to do so. 
An interesting arm of prison ministry was the explosion in popularity (among inmates) of a radio programme previously dedicated to Filipino migrant workers. It is called the Hour of Love, lasts from 8.30pm to 11.00pm each Sunday night, is hosted by a well known Hong Kong-New Yorker named, Bruce Aitken, and is streamed live on Facebook’s Tayo Pinoy Sanman page. Prisoners send in dedications, prayer and song requests. 
During my time in the Hong Kong prison ministry, I have been enriched, challenged and sometimes amused by both prisoners and guards, but most of all, I have been humbled by the faith in adversity, of this marginalised group of people. I have had my Spanish patiently corrected, been asked for a blessing from Muslims, Jews and Christians. Once or twice, when perhaps my own office work was a little difficult, a prisoner would say to me, “Father, you don’t look happy today. Would you like a prayer?” They read me like a book and I loved them. 
I know that these foreign inmates remain in the good hands of Father Wotherspoon, Reverend Edwin Ng and his band of deacons, an army of Filipino Overseas Foreign Worker Sunday visitors, groups such as the Joy Tak Mildness Association, BLD Prison Visitation, Father Tito Lopez and friends, Comunidad de S.F.Xavier, Las Mujeres Hispanas, and our colleagues from Kun Sun Ministries. 
May God protect all these pastoral agents and help all of us to work for a world where poverty, migration and violence does not force poor people into carrying substances which harm countless other lives in turn. 
Columban Father Patrick Colgan has worked in Hong Kong
and was, until August 2018, a member of the Columban General Council.