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An ex-inmate takes to Hong Kong’s airwaves, and prisoners tune in

An ex-inmate takes to Hong Kong’s airwaves, and prisoners tune in
Hundreds of prisoners in Hong Kong listen to the variety show hosted by Mr Bruce Aitken, which inmates say is a spiritual balm that helps them cope with life behind bars in a faraway land. (PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES)

An ex-inmate takes to Hong Kong’s airwaves, and prisoners tune in

HONG KONG — In the tiled corridors of Stanley Prison, a maximum-security complex on a rocky edge of Hong Kong’s main island, the chatter among the foreign inmates on Monday mornings tends to revolve around a single question.

Did you hear what “Brother Bruce” said last night?

Hundreds of prisoners in this semiautonomous Chinese city listen to “Hour of Love,” a variety show that airs every Sunday on a local station and includes hymns and Bible readings, along with pop music in Igbo, Punjabi, Spanish and other languages.

The inmates say the show is a spiritual balm that helps them cope with life behind bars in a faraway land. They are especially drawn to a segment where the US host, Mr Bruce Aitken, reads from inmates’ handwritten letters and plays tear-jerking voicemail messages from their parents, spouses, children and former cellmates.

“His program was very, very uplifting,” said Ms Anita Hamid, 42, a mother of three from Kenya who was released in February after serving eight years and four months in Hong Kong for heroin trafficking.

“It touched my heart and told me that, though I did wrong in that country, I still have a purpose in life,” she said by telephone from Nairobi.

Many of the foreign prisoners in this financial hub of about 7 million people are poor men and women from Africa or Latin America who were recruited to smuggle drugs through Hong Kong International Airport, two volunteer prison chaplains said in interviews.

As of late July, there were 1,679 foreign inmates in Hong Kong, representing about 20 per cent of the city’s overall prison population, said Ms Laura Chan, a spokeswoman for Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department. She said that 641 were serving drug-related sentences. Inmates from mainland China are not counted as foreign prisoners.

Hong Kong’s criminal justice laws, which include an automatic one-third sentence reduction for good behavior, are usually seen as generous compared with those of other countries, said Mr Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

However, case reviews from 2012 to 2016 resulted in further reductions beyond those for good behavior for only one of the 846 prisoners with fixed-term sentences of 10 years or longer, government data show. (Those figures do not apply to life sentences.)

Mr Aitken said that he regarded “Hour of Love” as both a service for the inmates and a means of encouraging authorities to consider granting more early releases for long-term prisoners.

“I believe in mercy over justice,” he said recently over lunch. A stack of inmates’ letters sat beside his sandwich.

Mr Aitken said a typical drug-trafficking sentence in Hong Kong was 20 years, reduced to 13 years with a guilty plea. He added that some inmates were married couples who were held in separate prisons without visitation rights.

Mr Aitken, 72, said that he empathised with his incarcerated listeners for an obvious reason: He, too, has served time.

“If there are sinners and saints, I’m much more a sinner, that’s for sure,” he said with a gentle laugh.

Mr Aitken grew up in New Jersey and moved to Vietnam in 1969 — not as a soldier, but for a banking job with American Express. He later moved to Hong Kong, he said, to work as a money launderer.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s, he ferried cash around Asia, he wrote in a memoir that was published this year, “The Cleaner: The True Story of One of the World’s Most Successful Money Launderers.” Some of his clients were marijuana smugglers.

In 1989, he was arrested in Thailand and sent to Nevada on money-laundering and drug-trafficking charges that carried a maximum total sentence of 40 years. He was sentenced to five years and served less than one as part of a plea bargain.

After completing unsupervised parole in Hong Kong, Mr Aitken said, he immersed himself in the city’s Roman Catholic community as a way of feeding a spiritual hunger. That led him to set up a kiosk on Sundays near the city’s waterfront that featured choir performances and catered mainly to domestic workers from the Philippines.

He said that the kiosk was closed in 2003 because of the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. But the following year he started a radio show as a kind of replacement.

“Hour of Love” began as a purely musical broadcast. But the station’s phone started ringing, he said, “and I had to start speaking — much to my chagrin, because I had no experience.”

Domestic workers began calling to share prayers and personal reflections, he said, and the show gained a following — 60,000 listeners in 2007, according to the station’s estimates.

Then a prison chaplain told Mr Aitken that the show also had a following inside Hong Kong’s prisons. So during one episode, he greeted the prisoners and invited them to write to his postal box.

Letters flooded in, Aitken said. In a busy week, he said, he receives 25 or more letters from inmates, including song requests and notes for their relatives about special occasions or family emergencies.

Many offer shout-outs to cellmates and effusive praise for the show’s host.

“We all love you Brother Bruce,” an inmate named Alahaji wrote in a letter last month. “And thanks once again for making us to believe that we’re not abandoned.”

Another inmate, Osorio Fabio Antonio, wrote: “You are a very special person to me, and not only to me, to all of us.”

Mr Aitken said “Hour of Love” had increased in length, to 150 minutes from 60, since its first broadcast in 2004, and now required about 10 hours of preparation every week. That time is in addition to his volunteer work at a local church that earmarks donations for his show.

“Maybe I do it for my own personal penance,” he said of his efforts.

“Maybe,” he added, “I’m trying to live a better life.”

Just after 8pm on a recent Sunday, Mr Aitken was joined in the radio studio by an Australian priest and two Filipino leaders of his “Hour of Love” church group.

At 8:30pm, they began an evening of reciting Scriptures, playing inmates’ song requests and reading inmates’ letters that were scattered among the microphones and coffee cups.

Mr Aitken looked tired at points in the broadcast, but mostly radiant. He even sang along with some of the music, pausing to shout the names of some prisoners.

“Hallelujah!” he said during a hymn played close to 11 p.m. “Come on, everyone, sing! I want all the correctional officers to ask you: *What were you singing last night?’” THE NEW YORK TIMES