Health Service Commissioner's review calls for prison needle and syringe program
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Health Service Commissioner's review calls for prison needle and syringe program

There are renewed calls for a needle and syringe program (NSP) at the Alexander Maconochie Centre after a review of the prison's opioid replacement therapy program recommended the move.

The ACT Government previously led lengthy consultations on the ideal model of a NSP but the policy was not taken to the 2016 election after corrections officers voted against the program's implementation at the prison.

The Alexander Maconochie centre on National Corrections Day. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Alexander Maconochie centre on National Corrections Day. Photo: Sitthixay DitthavongCredit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

But ACT Health Services Commissioner Karen Toohey's investigation into Alexander Maconochie Centre's opioid replacement therapy - a report triggered by the death in custody of Steven Freeman in 2016 - recommended the plan be revisited.

A NSP would aim to prevent inmates from sharing and using dirty needles to stop the spread if blood borne viruses including Hepatitis C and HIV.

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Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury

Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury Credit:Rohan Thomson

The report released last week recommended the government continue to progress the issue of a NSP to help reduce the risks of blood borne virus transmission at the prison, with up to 19-per-cent of prisoners reporting injecting drugs in the prison.

"...sharing needles continues to pose a risk of HIV and other blood borne virus transmission. It is important that the issue of an NSP continue to be progressed by the ACT Government to find a workable solution to reducing risks of blood borne virus transmission at the AMC," the report said.

The report's recommendations were welcomed by Hepatitis ACT which has been pushing for a regulated needle and syringe program at the prison.

Hepatitis ACT interim executive officer Rebecca Vassarotti said a NSP must be part of any serious effort to reduce the harms arising from drug use within AMC.

"Findings contained in the review include the fact that there is a culture of drug seeking within the prison. This further strengthens the evidence that illicit drugs are being accessed in the prison, and like in the rest of the community, a regulated NSP within the prison would reduce harms associated with injecting drug use, and protect health of detainees while in the prison," she said.

"There have been great strides made within AMC to reduce the rates of Hepatitis C and other infections through access to testing and treatment. However, we know that these efforts are being undermined by the fact that proven initiatives such as an NSP cannot currently be provided within the prison."

Ms Vassarotti said she hoped the review would re-open discussion about a NSP at AMC to enable the prison to fulfil its promise of being a human rights compliant facility.

"It's important to acknowledge the fears and concerns of custodial staff, who have to date sought to block the introduction of this proven harm reduction strategy," she said.

"This must however be tempered by the evidence that NSPs in prisons are both safe for staff and feasible, and constitute an important part of broader strategies to combat the spread of HIV, Hepatitis and other blood borne viruses."

Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury said a NSP would improve the health services available to prisoners.

"A needle and syringe program would provide a considerable boost to harm reduction strategies at the AMC and deliver the same level of health service available to the rest of the community," he said.

"I remain of the view that the goal of reducing the spread of serious blood-borne viruses among detainees should be pursued.

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"The Government is now advancing efforts on a Blood-Borne Virus strategy between ACT Health and ACT Corrective Services.

"Part of this strategy will be focused on reducing supply and demand of intravenous contraband drugs into the centre."

Daniella White is a reporter for The Canberra Times with a special focus on health issues

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