WHAT a delicate bunch of felons we have in our jails. When they cannot get risque television shows in their cells, they threaten to stage 'industrial action'. If they are asked to share barbed-wire compounds with murderers and thieves of another race, their precious sensibilities are outraged and they stage a sit-down strike. Yes, it's a tough life behind bars, but nowhere near as rigorous as it would be if I held down the thankless task of being commissioner of correctional services. Then convicts would have something about which to complain. Personally, I would not care to share a cell with a Vietnamese murderer. Nor would I like to rub shoulders with robbers, embezzlers and rapists from Nigeria, India, America, Spain, Australia or Pakistan, all of whom are represented among the 886 foreigners we have behind bars in our prisons. There is a very simple way to avoid such unpleasant personal contacts; don't commit crimes. If you do, and if you are caught and if our tender legal system allows you to be sent to prison, well, tough luck. You deserve all you get. Twenty years ago, I wrote that our jails were like beach resorts. The then commissioner for prisons (this was before the 'caring age') was a brusque sort of fellow called Tom Garner, a one-time Royal Navy chief petty officer. He objected to suggestions that the Hong Kong clinks were similar to Billy Butlin's holiday camps. Modern international trends in penology lean towards rehabilitation and education. I believe 99 per cent of Hong Kong people couldn't care less if a rapist goes to classes; we want them punished for their dreadful crimes and the only thing they should learn is never again to harm another. The present commissioner of correctional services is a fine man called Raymond Lai Ming-kee. In the past few weeks he, his department and his staff have been subjected to the most appalling series of snide attacks by some newspapers. Vigorous attempts to set the record straight have been largely ignored while some sensationalist publications continue to publish stories about gang rapes and drug dealing behind bars. The facts are ignored. In our jails are 13,123 criminals, give or take a child molester or two. The prisons are designed to hold 10,300 convicts. Each of these hoodlums, thieves and sex offenders costs taxpayers $128,000 a year to house and feed; not only do they hold knives at our throats, once found guilty they still have their hands in our pockets. One reason for the over-crowding is the shameful Hong Kong Government policy of jailing Chinese illegal immigrants for a 15-month mandatory term if they are found working in Hong Kong. There are about 3,000 of these luckless folk in the slammer, jailed by British 'justice' because they came here seeking work, just as did the men and women who built our vibrant society. It is a repulsive policy, but do not ask me to suggest an alternative because I cannot think of one. In addition to rapists and workers, Mr Lai and his department have somehow been saddled with caring for Vietnamese illegal migrants. We have managed in the past couple of years to get rid of 40,000 or so of these unwanted mouths but the most intractable, troublesome hard core 14,600 remain stuck in our camps, largely because of meddling social workers, irresponsible American politicians and a cohort of Western liberals whose own countries, wisely, would not touch these people with a 10,000-metre barge pole. Mr Lai and his staff are a professional, well-trained and vigilant team. There are no locked doors in our jails; all cells are fronted by grills and relentless jail discipline sees staff monitor regularly what goes on behind the bars. In such circumstances, gang rape, as luridly claimed by one newspaper, is impossible. Convicts endlessly attempt to sneak drugs into jail and prison warders endlessly try to prevent it. One lurk is for addicts to fill plastic straws with heroin, seal the ends with fire, then swallow their lodes of white powder. In the fullness of time, the laden straws emerge; in arrival cells there are no toilets and excrement goes into buckets which warders stir through looking for drugs. Anyone like to work for Correctional Services? The stringent measures used to stop narcotics getting into prisons are understandable. Behind bars, an ounce of heroin is more dangerous than a tonne of dynamite. Mr Lai knows this; he helped put down the savage Stanley Prison riots in 1973 which were started by jailed drug barons who ran rackets behind bars with the connivance of corrupt warders. THOSE days, thankfully, are past. Today's staff in our jails are well-educated, reasonably paid and strictly controlled by internal supervisors who routinely check their work. Virtually all ICAC cases in prisons in recent years have been originally unearthed by the Correctional Services' own disciplinary auditors. Unlike firemen and policemen, the men and women who run our prisons get few plaudits. They are the invisible heroes of our disciplined services corps. In the early days of Hong Kong, prisons were places best avoided. Jails were among the first public institutions built after the establishment of the colony, and were soon doing brisk business. There were few prisons in China, largely because Qing dynasty mandarins were given to instant decapitation of suspects for the mildest offences. So even the horrors of Victorian jails with their treadmills, floggings and dank cells held little fears for pirates and brigands; do their worst, British justice was mild compared with that in China. Things have not much changed. Being a turnkey in a jail is a thankless task. If you are a policeman, for instance, most of the people you meet are decent, likable people. Prison warders, on the other hand, meet only the rejects of society; every customer they have is a genuine, gold-encrusted, five-star rogue.