Prisoners hoping to gamble on the World Cup are out of luck even before the first game kicks off after the Correctional Services Department carried out some 2,000 raids in the first five months of the year.
Some 46 prisoners were disciplined and their "winnings" - in the form of 6,658 packs of cigarettes worth HK$1 million at the prison black market price of HK$150 each - were seized.
The number of anti-gambling operations was 38 per cent higher than in the same period last year. Among the items seized were 62 soccer betting slips, 18 for horse racing and 33 other gambling tools. The discoveries included homemade mahjong and poker cards, chess pieces and - in a first - dice crafted from bread, senior superintendent Tse Ho-yin said.
Officials say they will step up operations during the World Cup, which kicks off in the early hours of tomorrow morning, Hong Kong time, when hosts Brazil take on Croatia. And soccer fans behind bars face another blow; they will only be allowed to watch two of the games.
The department said gambling in jails was "sporadic" and that no particular syndicate or triad was believed to be organising the activities. "The life in prison of course cannot compare to the life outside," said the department's clinical psychologist Lee Kit-shan. "We consider gambling one of the wrong ways for inmates to spend their time."
But watching late-night soccer from South America is also off the agenda. Most of the games kick off between midnight and 6am when prisoners are in the cells. The only games they will be allowed to watch are Sunday's games between Italy and England; and Ivory Coast and Japan.
Besides punishing inmates for betting, officers chose 223 prisoners between January and March to undergo counselling to see whether they had gambling problems or were struggling to adjust to prison life. Of those, 12 were said to have serious gambling problems, of whom six were pathological gamblers, Lee said.
Prisoners' families were urged to get in touch so appropriate action could be taken.
As for those disciplined, Tse said every case was treated individually. Punishments can include loss of privileges and hopes of remission, solitary confinement and a cut in jail earnings.