IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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McDowell's speech on prisons suffers from "factual fuzziness", says Penal Reform Trust

29th September 2004

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has criticised yesterday's speech by Minister Michael McDowell as yet another example of the "factual fuzziness" upon which he continues to base his prison policy.

Speaking yesterday at a conference organised by PACE, the Minister announced plans which he purports will end heroin use in prisons through the implementation of mandatory drug testing, among other schemes.  He also reiterated his opposition to proposals from Drugs Strategy Minister Noel Ahern to provide sterile syringes to injecting drug using prisoners as a means to prevent the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C, accusing proponents of such a plan of "moral fuzziness".

"The Minister's comments yesterday again demonstrate the degree to which his view of the world deviates from recognised evidence-based practice and human rights standards," said IPRT Executive Director, Rick Lines. "While talk of 'drug-free prisons' makes a good sound bite, it makes poor public health policy.  Indeed, the international evidence shows that mandatory drug testing actually increases the number of prisoners injecting drugs as a means to 'beat' the testing, and therefore increases heroin use and the risk of transmission of HIV and Hep C."

The IPRT also strongly supported Minister Ahern's call for prison syringe exchange programmes. "International evidence of success from the more than 50 prisons in six countries providing these programmes - as well as international prison health guidelines from the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS - clearly support the provision of sterile syringes to injecting drug using prisoners.  Mr. McDowell's continued refusal to look objectively at this recognised example of best practice is yet further proof of his willingness to put political posturing ahead of scientific and medical evidence," said Mr. Lines.

The IPRT also refuted attempts by the Minister to disguise the true nature of his proposed prison expansion, which if implemented would make Ireland the 4th highest per capita jailer in the pre-expansion EU, while at the same time having one of the lowest rates of crime.  "The Minister went to great lengths yesterday to play fast and loose with the facts about incarceration and crime rates in Europe.  The cherry-picked figures he used to rose-tint Ireland's overuse of incarceration reveals the degree of factual fuzziness the Department of Justice is willing to employ to hide the true impact of the planned super-prisons and the 25% increase in prison places."

Said Mr. Lines, "If indeed the Minister truly believes he occupies the factual and moral high ground on these issues, why does he continue to refuse to provide any evidence supporting his plans?  Yesterday's speech offered a perfect opportunity to do so, yet the Minister chose to run out of the conference immediately following his speech, and avoid taking questions from the floor.  Judging from the later discussions in the conference, there were many professionals in attendance who would have taken issue with the Minister's plans."

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