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Scottish decision to scrap Mandatory Drug Testing in prisons latest blow to McDowell plan

31st May 2005

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has welcomed reports that the Scottish Prison Service will end mandatory drug testing (MDT) in prisons.  The IPRT says the decision is an admission that MDT fails to address prison drug use, and is calling on the Government to face up to this evidence of failure and abandon its plans to introduce MDT in Ireland.

Prison officials in Scotland plan to scrap mandatory drug testing after admitting the policy has failed to tackle rising heroin use. According to a senior Scottish prison official quoted in The Scotsman newspaper,  "The existing approach to tackling drugs in prison [MDT] simply isn't working. People are continuing to use drugs...Mandatory testing only really works if people are willing to be treated, but if they aren't then it isn't much use."   Scottish Prison Officers also voiced their opposition to MDT, saying it has encouraged heroin use among prisoners and has created a confrontational relationship between staff and prisoners that has discouraged uptake of drug treatment programmes.

"The international evidence is overwhelming that the Government's plan to introduce MDT has no hope of achieving its 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. "MDT is a policy driven by political posturing, and a desire to appear 'tough on drugs', rather than on any evidence of effectiveness or good practice.  It is a cynical and simplistic political response to an urgent and complex health problem."

The Scottish decision is the latest blow to Michael McDowell's attempts to portray MDT as a useful or sensible tool to tackle the issue of drug use in prison. Earlier this year, a report from the Scottish Prison Service found that the drug intake of 76% of Scottish prisoners was not effected by MDT.  In England, a 1997 evaluation of Britain's MDT policy concluded the policy was "counterproductive" because it "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."

Said Mr. Lines, "The Scottish experience reflects the existing international evidence that rather than combating drug use in prison, MDT actually increases heroin use and heroin injecting and leads many to begin injecting heroin because it is more difficult to detect by urine screening. This has also been documented by prison officials I have met from Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Germany.  By encouraging increased injecting, MDT increases the risk of HIV and Hepatitis C transmission in prisons via syringe sharing," said Mr. Lines.

"Drug use in Irish prisons is a serious problem requiring a serious solution.  While gimmicks like MDT may be attractive to pollsters and to politicians insulated within the walls of Government Buildings, to those working to develop comprehensive and effective responses to drug use and HIV/Hepatitis C in prisons they are an unhelpful distraction. Faced with the mounting evidence that MDT is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous, the Government must abandon its plans to impose this failed scheme and instead implement comprehensive drug treatment and HIV/Hepatitis C prevention measures that reflect international best practice," said Mr. Lines.

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