Calls for ACT to again lead prison syringe program debate reignited after AMA urges such initiatives nationally
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Calls for ACT to again lead prison syringe program debate reignited after AMA urges such initiatives nationally

Calls for the ACT to return to leading the national debate on safe needle exchange programs in prisons have been reignited after the Australian Medical Association urged all governments to instigate such programs around the nation on Monday.

The territory government was seen as leading the debate on regulated needle and syringe programs (NSP) in prisons after it pledged to trial a safe injecting room at Alexander Maconochie Centre in July last year after lengthy consultations on the ideal model.

Calls for ACT to lead the debate over prison syringe programs have been reignited after the AMA urged such proposals be taken on across Australia.

Calls for ACT to lead the debate over prison syringe programs have been reignited after the AMA urged such proposals be taken on across Australia. Credit:Jessica Hromas

But prison officers overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in an all-staff vote in September last year, leading to the government abandoning the idea weeks out from the ACT's October election.

An election pledge in the 2012 Labor-Greens agreement to form government in the previous legislative assembly, the proposal was not resurrected in the new agreement after Labor's 2016 election win.

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AMA president Dr Michael Gannon told ABC Radio on Monday that while the ACT's approach to the issue was a "novel one", and prison officers' views were important, the evidence showed such programs were effective at reducing rates of blood-borne viruses among both inmates and officers.

The statement called for such programs to be used as a "front-line approach to preventing blood-borne viruses" and Dr Gannon said it "should not be seen as having a permissive attitude" towards drugs, instead arguing people should recognise the realities of drug use in prisons and "we should do what we can to reduce harm".

"Prison-based NSP trials have been shown to reduce the risk of needle-stick injuries to staff, and increase the number of detainees accessing drug treatment, while showing no adverse effect on illicit drug use or overall prison security," he said.

Hepatitis ACT executive officer John Didlick said the statement was a welcome addition to "the chorus of professional bodies and organisations calling for regulated access to sterile injecting equipment in Australia's prisons".

Mr Didlick said there was also no evidence that regulated NSPs led to an increased risk of needle-related attacks on prison officers, and overseas research had actually revealed the opposite - that it made prisons safer.

"On the contrary, illegal and unregulated NSPs that operate when there is no regulated program, recirculate a limited supply of un-sterile needles that spread disease and create harms and risks for the prison and for the community more broadly," he said.

He said that it was also disappointing but "no surprise" that prison officers voted against the proposal, "given the absence of an accompanying evidence-based information campaign to inform their decision".

"If the ACT Government continues to allow prison officers to dictate health policies, it is unlikely that a regulated program will replace the harmful clandestine NSP operating now," he said.

Similarly, the Penington Institute, which advocates for harm minimisation among injecting drug users, backed the AMA's position.

Institute chief executive John Ryan said prison officers were at higher risk of potential attacks in the current un-regulated system.

He said that prisoners may be "doing the time they deserved", but they "don't deserve to lose all their human rights" just because they were serving a sentence.

"We've been very engaged in the prison needle exchange issue for years, and what happens on the inside does actually affect everybody," he said.

"We've got a great system in the community, but we've completely [let down] those in our prison system.

"The leader (in this debate) was the ACT, until they outsourced it to the unions."

Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury said he and the government "remain committed to reducing the spread of serious blood-borne viruses among detainees at the AMC".

But he said the government had agreed, through an enterprise agreement with the Community and Public Sector Union, that it would not implement any program without the majority support of prison officers.

He said that in light of the "overwhelming 'no' vote" the government was "in the process of considering the next steps".

"I recently met with the CPSU and am committed to continuing to talk to the AMC staff, health professionals and all relevant stakeholders about how we reduce the spread of blood borne viruses in the AMC,"

Comment was sought from the CPSU which represents prison officers in the ACT.

Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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