Needle and syringe trial in ACT prisons demonstrates important leadership in community health and evidence-based policy

Today’s announcement that the Australian Capital Territory will trial the provision of sterile injecting equipment in prisons is an essential response to a major prisoner and public health crisis, according to a leading human rights organisation. “A lack of access to sterile injecting equipment and the rapid turnover of people through the prison systems jeopardises the health of the prison population as well as the community at large,” said Ben Schokman of the Human Rights Law Centre. “Given the significant numbers of prisoners with blood‑borne viruses such as Hepatitis C, the provision of sterile injecting equipment reflects overwhelming evidence that needle and syringe programs are successful harm‑reduction measures.”

Australia is currently experiencing a Hepatitis C epidemic, with an estimated 264,000 Australians living with Hepatitis C antibodies. The figures are significantly greater in the prison context, with an estimated 30-40% of male prisoners and 50-70% of female prisoners in Australia living with Hepatitis C. Prisoners also experience higher rates of Hepatitis B.

“The outcomes of needle and syringe programs in countries around the world clearly demonstrate that such programs result in a significant decrease in syringe sharing among inmates, a significant decrease in the spread of blood-borne viruses, and an increase in referrals to treatment programs,” said Mr Schokman. “The evidence is clear that providing sterile injecting equipment in prisons works as a harm minimisation strategy and that its benefits extend beyond prisons and into the broader community.”

“The absence of needle and syringe programs in prisons creates a significant risk to both prisoner and community health and exposes governments to liability for breaches of human rights and its duty of care to prisoners. Other Australian states and territories must follow the ACT’s lead or risk litigation for breach of the duty of care owed to prisoners and breaches of human rights obligations,” said Mr Schokman.

“Prisons have an obligation to minimise the risk of harm to prisoners in their custody, with the World Health Organization recognising that the provision of needle and syringe programs is a minimum standard in harm reduction practices. Various peak health organisations, including the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and Anex, have all been advocating for needle and syringe programs to be provided in Australian prisons for some time now.”

Needle and syringe programs are currently successfully operating in many other countries around the world, including in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and even Iran. In addition to being effective harm-minimisation strategies, prisons that have implemented NSPs have also found that speculative fears have been unfounded. There has been no reported incidence of syringes being used as a weapon and no reported increase in drug use following the introduction of needle and syringe programs in prisons.

A copy of the ACT Chief Minister and Minister for Health’s announcement is available online here.