Needle exchange at AMC a fatally flawed proposal
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Needle exchange at AMC a fatally flawed proposal

A needle exchange program at the Alexander Maconochie Centre will increase the spread of blood-borne viruses and increase the risk of staff and inmates being threatened or attacked with a syringe.

It's high time the ACT government faces up to the reality of its proposed needle exchange program at Canberra's only prison the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

In order to do that it must first confront some home truths, including that its proposed needle exchange scheme could increase the spread of blood-borne viruses rather than reduce it. An important consideration for a serious health issue.

The ACT government and ACT health officials have acknowledged that needles will continue to be shared. Yet they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the exchange program is likely to facilitate the sharing of needles within the prison's walls.

It's what our members, prison officers, keep telling us and yet the government refuses to live in the real world. Needles, like drugs, are valuable currency within the prison system. Despite the supervision of prison staff, prisoners enrolled in the methadone program regurgitate their doses to trade in the prison's informal economy.

Injecting equipment has a high value inside prison. Needles provided by a needle exchange will be traded. Prisoners in the needle exchange scheme will be sought out by other prisoners wanting to inject. There are significant risks that inmates may be stood over to obtain needles for others to use. As well-intentioned as a needle exchange may be, the government is naive to think it will reduce needle sharing.

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Currently injecting equipment is contraband. When it is found it is immediately removed. A needle exchange sends mixed messages about institutional support for rehabilitation and the ACT government's approach to illicit drugs.

There is broad opposition to the scheme. Corrections ACT, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and Bill Aldcroft OAM JP have all questioned the proposed scheme in submissions, as members have. In his role as Prisoners Aid and Court Councillor, Aldcroft reported that not one of the 150 prisoners he had interviewed supported a needle exchange.

Yet the government blithely proceeds with its plan, ignoring the input from stakeholders who have a deep understanding of the prison environment. Its failure to take their views on board leaves the ACT government's policy fundamentally flawed and undermining the statutory duty of staff to the safety and welfare of inmates.

A needle exchange also increases the risk of staff and inmates being threatened or attacked with a syringe. Let's not forget that NSW prison officer Geoffrey Pearce died in 1998 after being assaulted by a prisoner with a blood-filled syringe. In recent days we have seen an arrest in Canberra in connection with robberies carried out with a syringe. The alleged perpetrator is likely to spend time at the jail.

Prison staff have a reputation for toughness and discipline but they also care. They want to do the best job for those they are responsible for and go home to their families at night. They should be able to expect the full support of the Labor Government. At the very least, their questions should be answered not ignored or denigrated.

Furthermore rehabilitation efforts would be significantly undermined by enabling the ongoing drug habits of prisoners while inside and then releasing them still addicted to drugs. This poses real risks to the community and is likely to lead to reoffending and the associated human and economic costs.

When the idea of a needle exchange program was first mooted many years ago, the government framed the debate around the human rights of prisoners. Since then the European Court of Human Rights has handed down a negative court decision on the subject and that argument evaporated.

The chief minister has identified that use of makeshift, contraband tattoo guns by prisoners could be a greater infection risk than intravenous drug use. Tattoos carry none of the legal complexities of injecting drug use. Despite this, the government's policy is silent on any clear measures to address this vector of transmission.

Blood-borne viruses such as Hepatitis C are serious. Our members support efforts to reduce blood-borne viruses and back more education and workforce development programs.

Members support recommendations regarding prisoners' access to their own razors and toothbrushes. Infection control procedures for barbering equipment; and appropriate and discreet access to prophylactics, including condoms and dental dams have been adopted.

However, our members do not support the proposed jail needle exchange. It is poor public policy that fails to address the causes of the transmission of blood- borne viruses and could heighten the risk of either prisoners or staff getting infected.

If the government is serious about needles in jail then it needs to take responsibility through legislative change, not transfer the risk to prisoners and prison staff.

This willful pursuit of a flawed scheme is more about politics than a practical response to the serious issues of blood-borne virus management in the jail.

Alistair Waters is the deputy national president of the Community and Public Sector Union.

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