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Research show Mandatory Drug Testing in Prisons "ineffective" and "dangerous", says Penal Reform Trust

6th January 2005

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has criticised plans to introduce mandatory drug testing (MDT) in prisons early this year, characterising the policy "at best ineffective and at worst dangerous." 

Citing new research published by the Scottish Prison Service showing the drug intake of 76% of prisoners was not affected by MDT, the IPRT said the evidence showed that Minister McDowell's plan will not produce the "drug free prisons" he claims.

"The research from Scotland is further proof that Mr. McDowell's plan has no hope of achieving his stated objectives," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines, who is recognised internationally for his work in the area of drugs and HIV policy in prisons. "This is a policy driven by political posturing, and a need to look "tough on drugs", rather than on any evidence of effectiveness or good practice."

While MDT does not affect prisoners' decisions to take drugs, the IPRT highlighted evidence that it does encourage a change in the types and methods of their drug use.

"International evidence shows that the introduction of MDT increases heroin use and injecting within the prisons because many drug users switch to injecting heroin specifically because it is more difficult to detect by urine screening. This has been documented by prison officials I have met from Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Germany.  This evidence shows that MDT is a policy that increases the risk of HIV and Hepatitis C transmission in prisons," said Mr. Lines.

A 1997 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." 

Said Mr. Lines, "Faced with the mounting evidence that MDT is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous, the Minister's insistence on this gimmicky policy shows that he is willing to play politics with an important public health issue. MDT has no place in any evidence-based prison drugs policy, and Mr. McDowell should bin this plan in favour of comprehensive drug treatment and HIV/Hepatitis C prevention measures."

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