Australia: Liberals to Campaign on Jail Needle Exchange

Australian Capital Territory officials plan soon to launch a pilot trial of the nation's first prison-based needle-exchange program. With the Oct. 20 ACT election looming, however, the NEP is likely to be highlighted as a policy difference between the Labor government and Canberra Liberals.

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher announced the one-for-one NEP today, saying it would begin as soon as an implementation plan is developed. While it will not be the full program recommended by a 2010 report on blood-borne viruses in prisons, Gallagher said, "I do believe that it is worthwhile examining a model which has been put to me by doctors, which addresses access to clean injecting equipment if considered clinically appropriate."

Doctors will be the key decision-makers, with jail staff and health and correction officials to decide on how the NEP should work. The Community and Public Sector Union -- vocal opponents of a full NEP -- will be looking closely at the proposal on behalf of prison officers it represents, said Vince McDevitt, the regional secretary.

ACT Greens, who have advocated a prison NEP for years, called the trial a win for evidence-based policy. "We can't bury our heads in the sand about this any longer," said Amanda Bresnan, the Greens health and corrections spokesperson. But her Liberal counterpart, Jeremy Hanson, said an NEP would be a mistake, noting that three-quarters of prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

"We have a golden opportunity to break their cycle of drug dependency while they are in jail," Hanson said. "A needle simply condones and maintains their ongoing drug use and will see prisoners released with the same drug habits that led to their crimes."