The ex-convict now broadcasting to a captive audience of Hong Kong prisoners
Bruce Aitken, who spent 10 months in jail, broadcasts to prisoners in Hong Kong every Sunday night. Here he looks at how the pandemic is giving people insights into what it means to forfeit freedom
The present world calamity caused by the COVID-19 virus has given us all a chance, wished for or not, to get off of our treadmill and take a good look around, smell the roses and reflect on what is important to us in life. It gives us all a taste of imprisonment in many ways.
Social animals by nature, we have tasted the loss of freedom of movement and of choice, to meet with family and friends, for healthy affection and fulfilment of our dreams. For many it has focused attention, perhaps for the first time, on faith and the spiritual.
These same losses are experienced in much more profound ways by people who are imprisoned in Hong Kong’s correctional institutions. They often face long years forgotten by a society that focuses on punishment and monotony rather than on rehabilitation. The physical environment in prisons here is good compared to most countries in terms of cleanliness and hygiene, but there is still much to be desired. A good example is access to educational opportunities.
As we experience a taste of being somewhat confined or even briefly in quarantine, think of what it must be like to spend 10, 15 or more years in a prison such as Stanley Prison or Shek Pik Prison for men, or Lo Wu Correctional Institution or Tai Lam Centre for Women, for the crime of being a drug mule.
Day after day is the same, inmates required to work for a pittance, allowed only one 10-minute phone call home every month, with basic food and a small selection of snacks purchased from inmate wages. The snack selection has not changed in many years.
While I do not condone the crime, often committed out of poverty, it is the small fish, the mule, that pays the price while the big fish, the kingpins, often remain free.
Ignorance of the laws in Hong Kong can result in serving many years in prison. Even with a third off for pleading guilty, there is little hope of remission, even for the best model prisoners. (See box below)
The old Monopoly game offered a “Get out of Jail Free” pass to the lucky player but in real life those securely locked down in Hong Kong prisons are there for the duration.
Some respite is offered every Sunday night, for two-and-a-half hours, when they tune in, on their tiny purchased radios, to AM 1044 Metro Plus and the Hour of Love and Prison Visitation on the Air, programmes that I have produced and hosted for 16 years.
Known as Brother Bruce to my captive audience, the programme conjures up release from the chains that confine the soul, the spirit and the mind within the dark cocoon of prison walls. As one man writes in addressing his cell in Stanley Prison: “Physically I might never escape from you. But every Sunday from 8.30pm-11pm I will escape from you through the airwaves if you like it or not.”
What is unique about the programme is that listeners in Hong Kong and around the globe have an opportunity to learn much about the lives of peoples of all nationalities in our correctional institutions. In their walled-off society, inmates come to rely on their faith, and on ways to help each other when times are tough – such as loss of a loved one, missing their children growing up without them, birthdays and holidays spent confined.
On the radio programme, real letters from inmates are received and read live into the public realm, dozens of short recorded messages are received from friends and family, and live messages from around the world are streamed on Facebook.
The programme has become a critical lifeline for prisoners, especially foreigners who have no local family support. Prisoners write and their families phone in requests to read letters, play special songs and exchange greetings in many languages.
With its steady diet of scripture readings, along with praise and worship music, the Hour of Love offers both a welcome tissue for isolated tears and a source of happiness and joy.
There are no dull moments while on the air. As many a prisoner has said over the years Prison Visitation on the Air is not only great fun, it offers inmates a profound understanding of how good men and women can sometimes do things that society considers objectionable.
Support for the programme relies on donations, and our mission has evolved into not only the hours required to produce and broadcast live every Sunday night, but also days of travel visiting inmates on a one-to-one basis.
Nothing makes a person happier than having a visit while in prison. A sense of self-esteem and happiness radiates, and the visiting guest comes away with a sense of purpose and peace. And it is open to everyone.
FCC member Bruce Aitken is from New Jersey, U.S., and has lived in Hong Kong since 1972. Convicted for money laundering in the late 1980s, he wrote the bestseller The Cleaner, The True Story of one of the World’s Most Successful Money Launderers about the experience