Australian first ... prisoners at the Alexander Maconochie Centre in the ACT will have access to a needle exchange program. Photo: Andrew Sheargold
The guards union has warned the government is yet to convince prison officers that the latest needle exchange model alleviates their ‘‘significant’’ concerns.
Chief Minister Katy Gallagher announced this morning a renewed push to introduce a needle and syringe program in the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
That could see prisoners given clean needles to safely inject drugs as early as next year, as the government attempts to combat the spread of hepatitis C among prisoners.
It will be based on a one-for-one model, where prisoners exchange a dirty needle for a clean needle, overseen by medical professionals.
Drug counselling and support will be offered alongside the needle exchange.
The proposed needle exchange has been mired in political limbo for years, facing strident opposition from the guards' union and the opposition.
The government plan will make the ACT the first jurisdiction in Australia and the English-speaking world to have a needle exchange in a prison setting.
An implementation group will now be created and Ms Gallagher hopes to have the needle exchange operational by next year.
But the government is understood to need the agreement of the Community and Public Sector Union, who represent guards, before a needle exchange can go ahead.
The enterprise agreement which covers the workers at the jail says "no needle exchange program ... shall be implemented without prior consultation and agreement by the Directorate, and union(s)."
CPSU regional secretary Vince McDevitt said that agreement was not yet secured.
But he said the union was working through the latest proposal, and was happy to consult with other stakeholders on the ‘‘complex issue’’.
‘‘Like others in the community CPSU members recognise the serious health issues around blood borne virus transmission,’’ Mr McDevitt said.
‘‘But our members also have legitimate concerns about risks a needle exchange program may have for themselves and for the prisoners they are responsible for,’’ he said.
‘‘These health and safety concerns were not adequately addressed in previous proposals from Government.’’
The union is also concerned the exchange would threaten the success of drug rehabilitation programs, and are reluctant to have prison officers complicit in an illegal activity.
Nine new cases of hepatitis C have been recorded in the jail since it was opened.
Seven of those new cases were recorded since December.
The CPSU has previously threatened strike action if a needle exchange was established in the jail.
Ms Gallagher made the announcement before a Public Health Association of Australia symposium on health and justice and received rapturous applause.
Former prison boss Doug Buchanan was opposed to the needle exchange before his controversial departure in May last year.
But current superintendent Don Taylor has been more circumspect, saying it is not his place to advocate for particular public policy views.
Key election battle
The opposition has warned it remains implacably opposed to a needle and syringe program at the jail in any form.
Opposition corrections spokesman Jeremy Hanson said any needle exchange would lead to a ‘‘proliferation of needles across the jail’’.
He said that would pose risks to guards and to prisoners.
That is despite the government’s claim that the one-for-one model would negate any risk of the further spread of needles in the jail.
Mr Hanson has vowed to fight the government over the issue in the remaining months before the ACT election.
‘‘It becomes quite clear now that as people move to the election in October that they have a clear choice,’’ Mr Hanson told ABC local radio this morning.
‘‘If they vote Labor and Green, they’ll have a needle exchange at the jail,’’ he said.
‘‘If they vote Liberal, they won’t have a needle exchange at the jail.’’
He said the needle exchange would lead to the normalisation and quasi-legalisation of drugs in the jail.
The support of doctors
The Australian Medical Australia ACT branch has welcomed the government’s announcement this morning. The AMA, who represent the doctors who would be responsible for giving prisoners clean needles, said it had become very concerned by the continual delays with the program’s implementation, but recognised it was politically difficult.
AMA ACT’s Andrew Miller said the one-for-one model would minimise the risk against its members.
‘‘Obviously there are concerns about people having pointed implements, potentially infectious pointed implements,’’ Dr Miller said.
‘‘But I think we need to be sensible about it, they’re there already,’’ he said.
‘‘If we can control the situation and ensure that the things that are being used are clean and are being exchanged one-for-one, that it’s done on a confidential basis, that there’s no comeback in terms of retribution, then it would certainly, I’m sure, be successful.’’
But Dr Miller warned that the needle exchange must be free from impediments, or it would fail.
‘‘It needs to be free, it needs to be easy to access, it needs to be confidential, the people involved need to be protected in all senses.’’
The Chief Minister has proved herself as a politician ‘‘with spine’’ in this morning’s announcement, chief executive officer of the Public Health Association and former Corrections Minister Michael Moore said.
Mr Moore was the author of a key report exploring the possibility of a needle exchange at the jail.
He put forward a number of workable practical options, but none of those were taken up by the government today.
‘‘This is an interpretation of what I suggested, and I’m very happy with it,’’ he said.
‘‘This is a difficult decision, this is the first time in the English-speaking world that we will have a prison with a needle and syringe program.’’
‘‘That is a major step forward, it is brave politics and it shows politics with spine.’’
Mr Moore has visited European jails with needle exchange programs already operating, but only one with the one-for-one model proposed by the government.
Human rights win
The Human Rights Commission has said the needle exchange was something that ‘‘had to happen’’ at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
The commission has been campaigning for a needle and syringe program at the jail since 2007.
Human Rights Commissioner Helen Watchirs said she was optimistic the needle exchange would be a success, but warned ‘‘commitment is the key’’.
‘‘I’m not surprised that there has been a delay, but I’m delighted that this close to an election, the announcement has been made,’’ she said.