An interesting press conference the other week from the Correctional Services Department.

The proceedings, presided over by the Commissioner of CS, Mr Woo Ying-ming, featured a predictable feast of statistics, a spirited defence of the department’s complaints system, which seems to share many features of the police one, and a “smart prison” plan.

This last was an attention grabber. Is Information Technology to be put at the service of correctional efficiency, and if so how?

Woo Ying-ming
Commissioner of Correctional Services Woo Ying-ming. Photo: GovHK.

Well they are going to have a “video analytic monitoring system”, which will keep a permanent electronic eye on prisoners, and alert the guards if something untoward is going on. This sounds a bit ambitious for a computer program, but they are going to trial it soon.

They also propose to fit prisoners with wristbands which will monitor their health and whereabouts. My wife has one of those already. It’s called an Apple Watch. Don’t spend more than HK$2,000 a piece on building your own version, please.

The third item coming soon to a pilot programme in a local correctional dormitory was described as “a robot arm that searches for drugs hidden in faeces”. You what? I was momentarily nonplussed. Why would anyone hide drugs in their shit?

After some discussion in the office we concluded that the drugs were not exactly hidden. They were smuggled in a way which resulted in the drugs landing in it, as it were.

monitoring wristband csd
The CSD’s monitoring wristband. Photo: GovHK.

The ins and outs of smuggling things into prison in this way are an obscure topic, but one which attracts a whole chapter in Mary Roach’s book on the human digestive system, “Gulp”.

Ms Roach is the queen of science journalism, She writes books which are both informative and intensely amusing, usually with monosyllabic titles. Also recommended, “Bonk”, “Stiff” and “Grunt”, respectively on sex, death and the military.

Smuggling things into prison, where inmates are usually stripped on arrival, requires the use of the body’s internal accommodation. Things can be swallowed, but this is difficult, time-consuming and dangerous. For more ease and capacity an item can simply be pushed up a passage which usually passes traffic only in the other direction.

This is known in American prisons as “hooping” and is used to smuggle, it is estimated, more than 1,000 pounds of tobacco and hundreds of mobile phones into the California state prison system every year. Also often found: chargers, batteries, Sim cards and those little earphones which go inside your ears. And, of course, recreational drugs.

Mary Roach Gulp
Gulp by Mary Roach. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company/Wikimedia Commons/Bill Holsinger-Robinson/cc-by-sa 2.0.

It seems our local CSD’s solution to this problem is to wait until the newly-admitted prisoner empties his bowels, and then go over the resulting output in search of contraband.

At the moment this is done in a rather low-tech way, by a correctional officer with a stick. We may be missing some important detail here, but it is difficult to work out what dramatic improvement might justify the invention of a robotic arm.

There are existing alternatives. According to Ms Roach there is a gadget called a Body Orifice Security Scanner, a high-tech chair, which saves waiting for a performance. Sit the prisoner in the chair and you get a picture of his internal cargo, if any, straight away. This may be expensive. It is too expensive for California anyway.

YouTube video

A rather different solution found in German prisons is a toilet attached to a glass tank instead of the usual hole in the floor. The prisoner performs in the usual way and the results can be examined from a safe distance without the use of a stick.

Or you could ask the Japanese people who make versatile toilets with a variety of extra functions if they could put together something with a sieve in it.

I apologise for an unsavoury topic. But there is a serious point here. There are technological innovations which look like a labour-saving breakthrough. And there are those which look like an elaborate way of wasting money. The “robotic arm” for stirring prisoner poop smells like one in the latter category.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.