Lives in the Balance: New Agreement Requires Good Faith to Save Lives

The Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation & Advocacy (CAHMA) and the Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), organisations representing people who inject drugs in prisons, are extremely disappointed that ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) staff will now get the final say over government policy on the proposed Needle & Syringe Program (NSP) in the ACT prison.

“It is well known that our prisons are filled with people who inject drugs. This means that governments across Australia have an obligation to proactively address the high risk of blood borne virus (BBV) transmission, particularly hepatitis C in our prisons. In announcing the Deed of Agreement between the ACT Government and ACTCS staff to outline a process for progressing discussions on the proposed NSP in the ACT prison, the ACT Government is openly acknowledging their statutory responsibility for the health and wellbeing of prisoners in the ACT,” says AIVL Executive Officer, Annie Madden.

“We know that detainees already have access to needles and syringes in prison. However, they are often made out of needles used by 30 people, biros, and cotton buds and are worth more than the drugs that they are used to inject. A controlled NSP would be safer for all.” says CAHMA Manager, Sione Crawford. As one ex-prisoner put it, “A [syringe] in jail is money to people. If you get a needle exchange in there that stops one of the black markets straight off the bat. [With an NSP] at least you wouldn’t have people stashing them in such random places because they’ve got to use the same one all the time. The [prison officers] would be less likely to get pricked because they wouldn’t be hidden.”

Along with other key experts and community representatives CAHMA & AIVL wish to remain optimistic and retain faith in the process and outcomes as a result of the 12 month Deed of Agreement. The Agreement includes a joint working group to develop a model for NSP in the AMC, a staff ballot to determine staff support for any model developed and significantly, a requirement that any proposed model must also have majority support from ACTCS to get the ‘green light’ for an NSP in the AMC.

It is important to remember that ultimately all these discussions and legal agreements are really about one thing – saving prisoners lives! NSP saves lives through the prevention of HIV and hepatitis C – the evidence to support this fact is conclusive and overwhelming. The continued lack of NSP in any prison in Australia however, has maintained a formidable barrier to blood borne virus (BBV) prevention in this context. In the ACT alone, it is estimated that up to 65% of prisoners in the AMC have hepatitis C. This includes at least 9 prisoners who have contracted hepatitis C within the AMC since it opened.

“It is unacceptable that staff without specialist expertise in BBV prevention are expected under the Deed of Agreement to take responsibility for policy decisions about serious diseases that can lead to long term health problems and even death” added CAHMA Manager, Sione Crawford. This responsibility means that both the ACT Government and the ACTCS must now ensure at all times they negotiate and act in good faith over the coming 12 months both in relation to their duty of care to prisoners and to health and safety of prison officers and other staff in the workplace. It is critical that promoting the health of prisoners and ensuring appropriate workplace health and safety standards are not viewed as incompatible. Indeed evidence from NSPs in prisons in other countries show no adverse health or staff safety outcomes associated with such programs.

“To honour the obligations under the Deed of Agreement prison officers in the ACT are going to need to be well informed on all aspects of best practice, evidence based BBV prevention policies and approaches. This needs to be provided through balanced, independent education and information for all prisons officers so that every officer can make an evidence-informed decision in the best interests of prisoners and prison staff” stated AIVL Executive Officer, Annie Madden.

When implementing NSP in the prison context, the design of the model is critical. NSPs in prisons overseas have shown that the program model and design, how programs are implemented and the way they are delivered can make the difference between an effective and ineffective outcome. Prisoners are a highly marginalised population and we have a responsibility as a community to ensure their health and human rights are protected.

Implementing the Deed of Agreement in relation to an NSP in the ACT prison in genuine good faith will require the ACT Government and ACTCS to consult in a meaningful way with recognised experts and representative organisations. “As representatives of people who inject drugs CAHMA and AIVL will be willing partners in making sure the health and lives of prisoners in the ACT do not simply become a casualty of politics in this area” concluded Mr Crawford and Ms Madden.

 Media Contacts:
Sione Crawford, CAHMA Manager: 0406755921
Annie Madden, AIVL Executive Officer: 0414628136

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