: Needles and syringes in gaol? Ask the prisoners

Needles and syringes in gaol? Ask the prisoners

Stefanie Schweiger

At security checkpoint 2 of the Alexander Maconochie Centre (‘AMC’, the ACT gaol), I was asked by a prison officer if I support the implementation of a needle syringe program (‘NSP’) into the AMC, and if the answer was no, could I please add my signature to the officers’ petition.

The Public Health Association of Australia (‘PHAA’) was commissioned by the ACT government to engage in, investigate and report on models for the implementation of an NSP at the AMC. Its report, Balancing Access and Safety: Meeting the challenge of blood borne viruses in prison, was released on 19 July. In the report the PHAA recommends legislative changes to assist the implementation of a needle and syringe program in the AMC; establishing clear rules and procedures; designing an implementation plan to ensure optimal health and safety outcomes for prison staff, the broader community, and prisoners; and providing supportive measures such as an Aboriginal Health Worker for the NSP, secure syringe disposal bins, and monitoring developments in retractable syringe technology.

The AMC has attracted a considerable amount of negative attention, with the ACT Opposition criticising the need for another review into the prison. The week that this report was released, three other reviews into the prison were also made public. Shadow Corrections Minister Jeremy Hanson says it is time for action, not another review. However, Katy Gallagher, ACT Chief Minister, said the report would help her make a decision about how an NSP will work in the AMC by the end of this year. That still leaves plenty of time for Hanson to duel with her about the report’s recommendations.

The AMC was established by the ACT government within the framework of the Human Rights Act (ACT). As such there are community expectations that the AMC will operate in ways that are quite different from other prisons in Australia, and will be able to achieve better rehabilitative outcomes for inmates. This view is shared by the prisoners who were part of the legal literacy program which brought me to the AMC in the first place.

The program provided the inmates with a space to talk about a few things, such as the law that governs their incarceration. In our last session of the program, we role-played the political climate surrounding the current controversy of a NSP. We divided into four groups, with each one representing a section of society that cares about whether there is an NSP or not: families, Corrective Services officers, inmates (using and non-using), and the community. This is more than the PHAA did; in researching its NSP report it did not consult with prisoners at all. In our role-play the inmates had many powerful things to say, aware and respectful of the different perspectives that can be brought to bear on the issue.

In acknowledging the broader operational context for the implementation of any NSP in the AMC, it is worth noting the current opposition to the NSP proposal from prison officers and their representatives. It is vital to ensure that any implementation models adopted will be flexible and take into account the concerns of both prisoners and prison officers in relation to the constraints applicable in the current working environment.

The PHAA report on models for the implementation of an NSP at the AMC is available at http://www.health.act.gov.au/consumer-information/community-consultation/moore-report-implementation-of-a-needle-and-syringe-program.

STEFANIE SCHWEIGER is a student in the ANU College of Law, and a volunteer in its Law Reform and Social Justice Program.

(2011) 36(3) AltLJ 207
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