The public - not prison guards - should be the ones to decide whether Canberra's jail should have a needle exchange program, according to a former ACT health minister.
Former ACT health minister and outgoing president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations Michael Moore has renewed calls for a needle and syringe program in the Alexander Maconochie Centre, seven years after the ACT branch recommended one be set up.
In an address on World Hepatitis Day, Mr Moore said while there had been breakthroughs in antiviral medicines, prevention was better - and cheaper in this case - than a cure.
Mr Moore said ACT prisoners were being denied justice by being prevented from accessing the same standard of healthcare they would get if they were out in the community.
He said that denial had come "more than anybody" from the ACT's prison officers, who in 2016 voted overwhelmingly against the establishment of a needle and syringe exchange program and injecting room at the jail.
Correctional officers have veto rights over the introduction of a needle exchange program as a condition of their enterprise bargaining agreement.
While a prison guard died of HIV in 2007 after a needlestick attack in Long Bay Jail eight years earlier, Mr Moore said there was no evidence a needle exchange program posed a heightened risk to corrections officers.
"We know that there is a needle and syringe program that is already being conducted in the AMC. The trouble is, it's being conducted by the prisoners," Mr Moore said.
Mr Moore said it should be the general community that decided whether an official program was set up in the jail.
That's not to take away in any way from the respect I have for the work prison officers do. It is a really challenging job and I don't miss the challenges they face but the reality is they are not the ones who should be deciding health policy. That's the job for the broader community," Mr Moore said.
“Of course they should have a say because it impacts their daily lives but should they have the final say? That’s an entirely different matter. And that’s where the problem is."
However, the union for prison guards said an exchange program should not be introduced unless it had the support of the correctional officers who worked on the front line.
"Prison officers are well informed on the issue and best placed to assess what’s best for health and safety, both theirs and inmates," Community and Public Sector Union national president Alistair Waters said.
“We will continue working to ensure that correctional officers are fully informed on this issue, and that their health and safety is not compromised. It’s easy for those who do not understand the prison environment to push for change, but it’s our members who have to live with the consequences and potential danger.”
Mr Waters said there were other ways hepatitis spread in prison, such as prison tattoos and piercings.
"Action to introduce safe tattooing and piercing practices would be far safer and may in fact be more effective in addressing the transmission of bloodborne viruses," Mr Waters said.
The ACT's Chief Health Officer Dr Paul Kelly said while he would support a needle exchange program, there were other ways infection could be reduced in the prison.
"We do [needle exchange] in the community for harm minimisation in relation to the transmission of blood-borne viruses," Dr Kelly said.
"In the AMC there are other complications but they are a high-risk group so considering how we can do that from a harm minimisation would certainly be supported, but in terms of hepatitis C we do have alternatives now in terms of treatment, and for HIV we also have others things we can look at and are looking at doing in that space."
ACT Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury said while a needle exchange program was no longer part of the Greens power-sharing deal with Labor, it remained the policy of both parties.
"It’s taken as implicit that it’s something we continue to want to do," Mr Rattenbury said.