The Correctional Services Department (CSD) was still using a "useless" drug detector on prison inmates more than a year after British police raised the alarm about the devices with their Hong Kong counterparts, a government source has told the South China Morning Post.
The CSD bought four between 2005 and 2008 from British fraudster James McCormick, paying an average of HK$220,000 for each one. McCormick was jailed in England for 10 years in May this year for selling more than £55 million (HK$644.55 million) worth of fake bomb detectors - basically the same devices - to Iraq and other hot spots.
The government source said Avon and Somerset police first contacted Hong Kong police about the devices in March last year. "[Hong Kong] police then informed the CSD saying that British police were investigating a fraud case after tests on the drug detector showed it was useless," the source said.
A CSD spokeswoman said it would not comment on whether the department had been told it was using a useless device.
The government source said police also notified the CSD that British police had requested information on how the device was purchased in Hong Kong, and that the CSD responded the following month, in May. A police spokeswoman confirmed it received a request for assistance in a criminal probe.
However, the police did not respond to questions on whether it received a letter asking it to warn the CSD to stop using the drug detectors in June last year. A CSD spokeswoman said Hong Kong police did not pass on the warnings. The Correctional Services Department confirmed it only stopped using the devices two months ago, after McCormick was sentenced.
Detective Inspector Edward Heath, who led the British probe into McCormick, told the Post it sent a warning letter to the CSD through the Hong Kong police on June 27 last year to stop using the drug detector. "The CSD were informed of these devices. That was way before the court result," Heath said. "They were warned not to use them."
But this account is disputed by a Hong Kong police source, who said the force did not receive the letter from British police.
The CSD spokeswoman said Hong Kong police did not pass on a letter from Avon and Somerset Police in June. "Since learning of the UK court result in May this year, the CSD has ceased using the detectors," she said.
Heath said the warning letter was issued via the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), which, in co-operation with Interpol, distributed the message as it was well-equipped to handle overseas police investigations.
A SOCA spokesman said: "The detail of communications via the Interpol framework are confidential."
In 2012, there were 158 seizures of dangerous drugs carried out on the doorsteps of correctional institutions, according to figures provided by the CSD.
The CSD said various measures contributed to the discovery of drugs in prisons, and it did not solely rely on McCormick's product. It said sniffer dogs and urine tests, among other methods, were used. A spokeswoman said it could not say how many inmates were tested by the device. It added that no prisoner was disciplined based on the test result of the detector.
In May 2010, a demonstration of the new device was held for journalists, including a Post reporter, and it successfully indicated the approximate location of drugs hidden in a room.