Jail is no place for needles

Jail is no place for needles

In his article ''Rights exist behind the wire'' (March 13, p15), Jon Stanhope accuses those opposed to a needle and syringe program at the ACT jail of demonising and vilifying prisoners. He reserves particular scorn for the CPSU which has not fallen into line with his ideological position but chosen to represent the almost unanimous view of the frontline corrections staff who oppose such a program.

The frontline staff opposition is well founded. They have legitimate concerns about the negative impact on drug rehabilitation programs and legitimate safety concerns about prisoners being armed with needles which can be used as weapons against themselves and other prisoners. Recently, a Canberra woman was jailed for nearly seven years for a series of robberies spanning five years where she used syringes to threaten shop and security staff.

Jon Stanhope and his ideological allies - including Katy Gallagher, Simon Corbell, and the ACT Greens - argue for a needle and syringe program because they have failed to address the fundamental problem, which is the prevalence of drugs getting into the prison in the first place.

The Burnet Institute report into the Alexander Maconochie Centre has shown that the policies to prevent drugs entering the jail, and the drug-treatment programs on offer are a mess. It is inconceivable that a needle exchange should even be considered until such a time that the numerous serious failings identified are fully resolved. Rather, the focus should be on enhancing policies and services currently in place, which if working as they should, would provide an effective response to drug addictions, criminal behaviours and Hepatitis C transmission. Of note, evidence shows that Hepatitis C transmission is far lower inside well-run jails where access to drugs and needles is limited than among similar demographic groups in the community. With three quarters of ACT prisoners attributing their crimes to drugs, the objective must be to prevent drugs entering the jail, and to provide effective treatment and rehabilitation programs that will reduce the chance of Hepatitis C transmission. This would prevent prisoners being released back into our community with the same drug addiction that provoked their crimes in the first place.

No other state or territory in Australia has a needle exchange, and many of those pushing for it in our jail want the ACT to be a test case so that more can be rolled out in jails across Australia. However, the ACT jail is a bad choice for such a trial. It has already proved very difficult to manage because of the complexity caused by a population that includes male, female, sentenced and remand prisoners.


Given the damning findings of the Burnet Institute and Hamburger reports, and the litany of mistakes that have been made at the jail since it was opened, I have no confidence that a needle exchange would be managed safely or effectively.

So what should be done? First, address the extensive shortcomings identified by the Burnet Institute and Hamburger reports to ensure that drug and other programs are run properly. Second, enhance current programs with proven strategies from other jurisdictions.

Third, review the Corrections Management Act and the way it is implemented to ensure that the focus is on safety, security, treatment and rehabilitation, and effective measures to limit illegal drugs entering the jail.

Prisoners', staff, and the community's welfare, health, safety, and human rights are best served by providing an environment with fewer drugs and better access to effective drug and other rehabilitation programs.

Jeremy Hanson is the ACT's shadow minister for corrections.

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