Researchers have slammed the voting down of a needle exchange program at Canberra's Alexander Maconochie Centre saying it should be evidence rather than unions that decide public health policy.
ACT corrections officers voted down the plan to introduce a needle and syringe exchange program and injecting room at the jail by an overwhelming majority last week.
Burnett Institute head of Justice Health Research, Associate Professor Mark Stoove, said after years of planning the vetoing by members of the Community and Public Sector Union stifled an opportunity for the ACT to take national leadership on the issue.
"It is really disappointing from the ACT government that they have allowed this process to play out where it is the unions dictating health policy rather than evidence or ACT Health themselves," he said.
"This was by far the best opportunity Australia had to trial a prison needle and syringe program and I don't hold out much hope in the near or medium-term future for any other jurisdictions to take up the call.
"Acknowledging that wide-scale drug use occurs in Australian prisons, which everybody knows, is sadly a politically risky thing to acknowledge publically."
Dr Stoove's 2011 report into blood-borne virus protocols pointed to inadequacies and made recommendations to improve screening to monitor intra prison transmission.
An ACT health spokeswoman said all new admissions to jail were offered screening for bloodborne viruses including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), measles, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhoea.
Informed consent has to be obtained prior to screening and "as at April 2016, the uptake of this 'on-admission' screening is approximately 60 per cent," the spokeswoman said.
Detainees are offered screening again after 90 days, routinely for those receiving methadone, and again before a detainee is released.
Dr Stoove said testing algorithms had improved since his 2011 report but without harm minimisation strategies such as a syringe exchange program the risk of infection remained.
"The commonwealth recently invested billions of dollars into treating people with hepatitis C and curing them of the virus with new drugs," he said.
He said a decision like this to veto harm minimisation cast aside concerns for prisoner welfare, but also flew in the face of that significant national investment and pragmatic health budgeting.
"Unfortunately a decision like this means there will be a fair proportion in the community who are cured of hepatitis C through these very expensive, commonwealth-funded treatment regimens who may enter or re-enter prison and become re-infected. They either go on living with hepatitis C or have to be treated again at considerable cost."
Data from the ACT Notifiable Diseases Database shows that there are about 10 new infections of hepatitis C in the wider Canberra community each year.
This year to the end of June there have been eight notifications of new infection.
UNSW Professor of Social Research in Health, Carla Treloar, investigated the underground market for syringes in Australian prisons and found inmates reported paying $50-$350 for injecting equipment whether it was clean or not.
She said the debate on this issue was sparked in the mid '90s after an officer at Long Bay was stabbed with an HIV infected needle and later died of AIDS.
"This isn't news to corrections, they have known this for decades. We also have nice data now which shows people have acquired hepatitis C in prison," Dr Treloar said.
"It's not acceptable that we are allowing those kinds of infections to occur, infections that cost the individual, the health system and society more generally."