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Mandatory Drug Testing of prisoners plays politics with public health, says Penal Reform Trust

30th December 2004

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has today criticised the announcement that mandatory drug testing (MDT) of prisoners will begin early in the new year.  Citing international evidence that MDT programmes lead to increased heroin injecting among prisoners, thereby increasing the likelihood of the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C among prisoners and the general population*, the IPRT has accused the Minister of playing politics with public health.

"International evidence is clear that MDT increases drug-related harm and heroin injecting within the prison context, and leads many drug users to begin injecting specifically to avoid detection by urine screening," said IPRT Executive Director, Rick Lines, who is recognised internationally for his work in the area of drugs and HIV policy in prisons.  "This outcome has been documented by prison officials I have met from Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Germany.  That the Minister would push ahead with a gimmicky but ill-conceived MDT policy clearly shows a willingness to play politics with an important public health issue."

An evaluation of Britain's MDT policy by the University of Central England in Birmingham found that

"MDT...is counterproductive. It deflects attention from the real issue of the purposes and funding of the prison system. Drug testing also deflects attention from other crucial areas like the spread of HIV and AIDS in prison. MDT increases tension in prisons, appears to be encouraging a shift from 'soft' to 'hard' drugs, is adding to the workload of an already overburdened staff, is costing a lot of money that could be better spent and is failing to provide adequate treatment and follow-up procedures. It is, thus, primarily an indiscriminate punitive regime that is adding to the overcrowding in British prisons by effectively adding extra weeks to prisoners' sentences." (Dr. Morag MacDonald. Mandatory Drug Testing in Prisons. January 1997). 

"Despite having been specifically asked on several occasions in the Dáil, Minister McDowell has consistently refused to cite any evidence that his mandatory drug testing plan will work," said Mr. Lines. "Given the extensive history of failure of MDT, the Minister's silence on the important question of proof of effectiveness is deafening, and indicates yet again that his policy positions seem to be driven by soundbites rather than sound evidence."

"Rather than pushing gimmicks that have proven to fail as policy, the Minister should instead prioritise public health by implementing comprehensive HIV and Hepatitis C prevention measures, such as sterile syringes, that have been proven safe and effective in other countries," said Mr. Lines.

* Irish research has shown that as many one-third of Irish prisoners are infected with Hepatitis C.

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