Victorian prisoner to argue duty to provide clean needles

A Victorian prisoner is preparing proceedings against the State Government alleging that it has failed to protect him from exposure to hepatitis C during his time in jail. Prisons have been described as a ''hot bed'' for blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis C, with more than 40 percent of Victorian prisoners carrying the virus. Coupled with the prevalence of intravenous drug use in Victorian prisons, a failure to provide clean needles and syringes may amount to a breach of the state's common law duty of care and obligations under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

At present, Victorian prison authorities are giving inmates bleach to clean syringes, a measure described by experts as inadequate.

Various peak health organisations, including the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and Anex, a group working with Sir Gustav Nossal and Professor Doherty to reduce drug related harm, have called upon the State Government to introduce needle and syringe programs in prisons. The widespread support follows findings that needle and syringe programs in prisons have significantly reduced disease transmission in 10 countries, including Switzerland and Spain.

The Human Rights Law Centre has been advised on the issue by leading senior barristers and law firms and believes that it is only a matter of time before a prisoner successfully sues a prison and government for exposing them to infectious diseases. If a case is successful, exposure to further legal action may force the Government to consider implementing needle and syringe programs to protect the health of prisoners, who are known to be injecting drugs with dirty equipment.

Media reports, such as the Saturday Age’s recent feature piece, ‘Within these walls’, indicate that Corrections Victoria presently has no plans for a needle and syringe program.