World Cup a gambling headache for city's prisons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 May, 2010, 12:00am

Gambling on soccer is banned in Hong Kong's prisons but inmates go to great lengths to avoid detection by officers - even using secret codes to place bets.

Every four years, Correctional Services Department officers face a headache over increased gambling in jails due to the World Cup. Each of the past three years, there have been about 100 cases of inmates caught gambling, but in 2006, when the World Cup was last staged, there were 313 cases.

With the tournament starting on June 11 in South Africa, officers are already planning to tighten their grip on gamblers.

Officers can sometimes identify a gambler by the number of cigarettes on them.

With little money in their pockets, prisoners usually bet with cigarettes. Those with a lot may have just secured a big win, officers said yesterday.

Also, random English words that don't seem to make sense could also be a secret code used by gamblers. And instead of numbers, gamblers use codes of English letters to represent how much they have gambled.

An anti-gambling team will be set up in every heavily guarded male prison during the World Cup, and extra officers from the department can be deployed to break up organised gambling.

Increasing the number of surprise checks on cells at night and isolating the organisers of gambling from other inmates are among measures to be implemented.

Catching inmates with drugs is another priority, and the department continues to examine equipment for detecting hidden supplies.

In the first four months of this year, there were 55 cases of inmates suspected of having drugs in their possession. In the face of prisoners' ever-changing game of hide-and-seek, officers are relying on high-tech machines to assist them.

To identify a drug user, officers can wipe a paper tester around a prisoner's mouth or hands. A HK$350,000 system identifies traces of common drugs on the paper. The department started using the machine in 2000 and 12 are in use.

Another cutting-edge machine is an HK$600,000 electrostatic drug detector. A pointer that looks like a radio antenna directs officers to hidden drugs. Several illegal substances can be detected at once.

The department has tested X-ray machines from four manufacturers but none were up to standards. A prisoner who had swallowed 30 pills could not be identified in a trial, senior superintendent of quality assurance, Ho Lung-kwong, said.

Manufacturers were told they needed to upgrade their machines, and the government plans to do more testing when new machines come out.

Cup fever

Each of the last three years, there have been about 100 cases of inmates caught gambling, but in 2006, when the World Cup was last staged, the number was: 313