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Ebulletin #35

2nd July 2006

VOICES RISING - Volume 4, Number 6

New Report calls for Expanded use of Alternatives to Prison

A new report published today urges the Government to expand the use of community sanctions as an alternative to incarceration. 

Written by Dr. Mairead Seymour and commissioned by Business in the Commity Ireland in association with the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), the report concludes there is a wide scope for reducing expenditure on prisons by learning from the success in other jurisdictions of implementing non-custodial sentences.

"The purpose of this report is to examine international best practice in the area of non-custodial sanctions, and to determine what we might learn from that evidence in developing our own policy responses here in Ireland," said Claire Hamilton, Chairperson of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, who supervised the research.

"In comparison with our European neighbours, Ireland drastically overuses prison as a response to offending. Given the significant cost of incarceration, and the fact that most people sent to prison each year are for non-violent offences and short sentences, there is a strong case for diverting a large majority of offenders each year away from prison."

Among the Report's recommendations are: 

  • Introduce a requirement in legislation that, save for exceptional circumstances, offenders sentenced to one year or less be diverted away from prisons and into a community based sanction as a first option
  • Develop written guidelines around community sanctions to ensure equity and consistency in sentencing
  • Provide a statutory framework for community sanctions
  • Enhance funding to the Probation and Welfare Service to enable it to increase community supervision of offenders
  • Avoid electronic tagging, as the evidence shows it to be an ineffective and expensive programme

"Over 80% of committals each year are for sentences of one year or less, which clearly illustrates Ireland's potential to significantly reduce our use of, and expenditure on, prisons though appropriate community sanctions," said Rick Lines, Executive Director of the IPRT. "Unfortunately, this potential is under-appreciated, under-funded and under-developed."

"Before the Government rushes into a massive, ill-considered and expensive prison expansion programme, we believe there should be a real debate about the sensible alternatives that exist to meet Ireland's needs," said Mr. Lines.

Alternatives to Custody in Ireland by Dr. Mairead Seymour
was produced with the generous support of the Cyril Forbes Fund.

Penal Reform Trust Welcomes Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has today welcomed the entry into force of the new Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, and is urging the Irish Government to follow the UK Government's lead by ratifying the human rights treaty without further delay. 

The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT), which will establish the first international system of detention monitoring of its kind, enters into force today. Adopted by the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2002, it has already been ratified by a number or EU countries including Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Poland and the United Kingdom. Following the simultaneous ratification by Bolivia and Honduras on the 23 May, the OPCAT now has the twenty ratifications necessary for it to come into effect.

According to Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, "The OPCAT is the most important development for the effective prevention of torture at the universal level."  It  will lead to the creation of a UN Subcommittee on Prevention as well as independent national visiting bodies which will conduct in-country visits to all places of detention.

"Regular and unannounced visits to places of detention are one of the most effective ways to prevent torture and ill treatment of prisoners and detainees," said Rick Lines, IPRT Executive Director.  "By ratifying OPCAT, Ireland would enhance independent human rights monitoring of the living conditions and treatment of some of our most vulnerable people, as well as demonstrate our commitment to supporting UN human rights mechanisms."

Through ratification, countries effectively open their places of detention to independent national and international human rights scrutiny. The new Subcommittee and national visiting mechanisms will be able to access any place of detention, including prisons, police stations or psychiatric hospitals. Under the OPCAT, countries will have to ensure that these international and national bodies have access to all the information on the treatment and conditions of prisoners and places of detention, as well as allow private interviews with detainees.

"IPRT welcomes today's entry into force of OPCAT and urges the Irish Government to follow the UK Government's lead by ratifying the Protocol as soon as possible.  This will not only harmonise accountability and human rights protections north and south, as mandated under the Good Friday Agreement, but will also demonstrate Ireland's commitment to enhanced human rights protections worldwide," said Mr. Lines.

IPRT speaks on human rights at conference in Estonia

On June 20, IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines gave a plenary presentation at the International Prisoner Health Conference: Achieving International Standards in Prison Health Care in Tallinn, Estonia.  Mr. Lines spoke on the topic A Duty to Protect: Prisoners' Rights to Health in International Human Rights Law".

This presentation was made with the support of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

A copy of the presentation is available on the IPRT website. 

Oops I did it again....

Readers of the IPRT eBulletin will be familiar with Justice Minister Michael McDowell's tendency to cite "facts" to support his policy proposals which - on closer scrutiny - turn out not to be facts at all.   Well in June, Green Party Justice Spokesperson Ciaran Cuffe exposed the latest example.

As reported in our last eBulletin, during a Dáil debate on drug use on May 24th, the Minister justified his harsh "zero-tolerance" perspective by claiming that "the reality [is] that we are obliged by European law to criminalise the possession of hard drugs". 

Following the debate, Deputy Cuffe submitted a Parliamentary Question asking the Minister to cite the European legislation to which he was referring.  In the answer, in which the Minister discussed the provisions of a 2004 Council of Europe directive on drugs, Mr. McDowell admited that "Provision is also made for the exclusion from the scope of the instrument of conduct committed exclusively for a person's own consumption as defined by national law."

So, although he claimed in the Dáil that European law obliges Ireland to criminalise drug possession, in the answer to the PQ he admits that in fact Ireland has no such obligation, as possession for personal use is specifically excluded from the directive! In other words, Mr.McDowell's answer in the PQ directly contradicts his statement in the Dáil on 24 May.

Maybe there's a job opening for a fact checker at the Department of Justice?? 

Prison Syringe Exchange in Luxembourg

In August 2005, CPL Prison in Schassig, Luxembourg initiated the country's first prison syringe exchange programme. CPL is Luxembourg's largest prison, housing over 650 prisoners.

Prisoners have to make a request to the prison doctor to particpate in the programme.  Based upon an evaluation, the prisoner is given a harm reduction kit containing two syringes in a plastic case, along with safer injecting paraphernalia including distilled water, alcohol swabs and ascorbic acid.  Once enrolled in the programme, exchanges of used syringes for new ones are made in the prison medical unit.

Programme syringes that are safely stored inside the case will be left alone by prison officers, and won't be reported. However, syringes found outside the case will be confiscated, and the prisoner will face disciplinary sanctions for improper and unsafe storage.

The consumption and possession of drugs remains illegal in the prison.

According to the prison, "The syringe exchange program is an efficient way to reduce the harms of drug abuse. It reduces the sharing of syringes and needles, and therefore it reduces the risk of infectious diseases' transmission (hepatitis, AIDS and others) among detainees who inject drugs, and in the long run, their sexual partners. The exchange of syringes does not jeopardize the security of the staff or the detainees; it enables a safer work and life environment."

Press Release: "New poll finds 62% of Canadians don't share the Harper government's approach to crime reduction"

Ottawa (11 May 2006) - A new poll commissioned by the 340,000-member National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) indicates that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is out of sync with the views of a strong majority of Canadians on the best approach to lowering the country's crime rate.

By a wide margin, Canadians say the best way to reduce crime is to attack its root causes through better education, social programs and job training. A total of 62% of respondents say focusing on the social and economic problems that breed crime is a better approach than building more prisons and hiring more police and judges (23%). In Quebec, 68% of respondents agree this is the best approach to lowering the crime rate (vs. 17%).

The NUPGE-sponsored national poll comes as MPs prepare to debate new legislative measures introduced by the Harper Conservatives to impose mandatory minimum jail sentences for certain crimes and to eliminate conditional sentences for a long list of crimes.

The government has acknowledged that more prisons will be required as the number of inmates rise in response to the new anti-crime program. The government has also committed $161 million in new spending to hire 1,000 new RCMP officers and federal prosecutors.

"Contrary to the government's approach, more prisons, police and prosecutors are not the solutions most Canadians prefer," says James Clancy, NUPGE national president. "The majority of Canadians simply don't share the Harper government's lock-em-up mentality."

"The Conservative plan would be more in tune with Canadians' views if it focused more on crime prevention coupled with more investment in staffing levels, training, and programs in provincial jails and communities," says Clancy.


The national poll was conducted by Vector Research + Development Inc. from April 20-25, 2006. The margin of error for the poll is ±4.3 percentage points, in 19 cases out of 20 (or 95% of all samples).

About NUPGE:

NUPGE is Canada's second largest union, with 340,000 members providing public services in communities across Canada, including criminal justice, health care, child care, education and more.

"Heroin: The solution?" by Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, The Independent (UK)

Drugs charities called yesterday for Britain to abandon its tough approach to heroin use after research showed one European city had cut the number of new addicts by transforming the image of heroin into a "loser drug".

The UK should follow the example of Zurich, which adopted a liberal drug policy a decade ago, and has seen an 82 per cent decline in new users of heroin, experts say.

The change has been achieved by offering drug addicts in Switzerland "substitution" treatment with injectable heroin on prescription, as well as oral methadone, needle exchange and "shooting galleries" where they can give themselves their fix.

The new approach has medicalised drug use and removed its glamour, researchers say. Crime and deaths linked with drugs have fallen, and the image of heroin use has been transformed from one of rebellionto an illness.

"Finally, heroin seems to have become a loser drug, with its attractiveness fading for young people," said Carlos Nordt of the Psychiatric University Hospital in Zurich. The Lancet, which publishes the research today, accuses the Government of resisting reforms such as the introduction of drug consumption rooms - safe injecting houses for addicts - which are contributing to Britain's death rate from illegal drug use, which is the highest in Europe.

Their introduction was first recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002. Last week a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, backed by police chiefs, urged the Government to act.

"After four years and thousands of needless drug-related deaths, a thorough trial of drug consumption rooms is a requirement the Government cannot afford to refuse a second time," The Lancet says in an editorial.

Responding to the report, Vernon Coaker, a Home Office minister, reiterated the Government's key objection, that drug consumption rooms risked increasing localised dealing and antisocial behaviour.

The Tories said they would consider the proposal. Edward Garner, shadow home affairs minister, said: "If this is to be used as a stepping stone to actually getting people off drugs we will look at it carefully."

There are an estimated 280,000 problem drug users in the UK, most taking heroin and crack cocaine, and around 2,500 deaths a year. Professor John Strang, director of the National Addiction Centre at the Maudsley hospital in south London, said: "If there is something magical about what the Swiss have done it is not handing out the heroin - it is the heroin mixed with routine and drudgery. All the drugs are consumed on the premises and the patients have to come in three times a day for their dose. It is extremely medicalised. The rebellious nature of drug use has been institutionalised - in the same way that punk was institutionalised when it was adopted by the fashion industry."

Writing in The Lancet, Dr Nordt and his colleague Rudolf Stohler say drug use in Zurich rose rapidly from 80 new registered users in 1975 to 850 new users in 1990. It culminated in open drug scenes at the Platzspitz ("needle park") and subsequently at the former railway station Letten.

Since 1991, when substitution treatment became available to all heroin users in Zurich, the number of new addicts has dropped sharply to 150 in 2002. The overall number of heroin addicts in the city has declined by 4 per cent a year, even though the average length of time each user spends on the drug has increased.

The researchers say the finding confounds critics of the liberal approach who predicted that it would increase drug use. Despite giving addicts readier access to the drugs they want, drug use has fallen. Deaths from overdoses and drug seizures have also declined, they say.

Supporters of the approach hailed the study yesterday as evidence that the policy works. Drug use in the UK continues to rise, figures show.

Victor Adebowale, the chief executive of Turning Point, the drugs charity, said: "Heroin prescribing should be part of the mix of getting people to succeed in treatment. Experience abroad has shown that prescribing heroin helps to stabilise some users who have tried and failed with a methadone prescription, and have been in and out of detox and rehab." A spokeswoman for Drugscope said: "We would very much like to see heroin prescribing extended here. There is a lot of international evidence that it can help entrenched drug users to stabilise their habit and move to a drug-free lifestyle."

Many robberies and much antisocial behaviour is drug-related, and a large number of addicts are homeless. Extremely pure heroin appearing on the streets can lead to a surge in deaths. A BBC survey found that three out of four people believed that illegal drugs were a problem in their local area and more than half thought that the police should be doing more to tackle it.

The spokeswoman for Drugscope added: "The problem with many drug users is that they keep going back to street drugs and drop out of treatment. Effective measures that keep them in treatment are what we need."

Five steps to a more liberal policy

* Prescribing injectable heroin: Evidence shows it can draw users into treatment, is safer, and can help long-term users stabilise their lives.

* Drug consumption rooms: Provide a safe house for drug users to inject, where they do not cause a nuisance and can be monitored.

* Methadone substitution: Offered as an alternative to street drugs it is taken orally, is safer, and gives a gentler high.

* Needle exchange: Providing clean needles reduces the risk of the transmission of diseases including HIV and hepatitis.

* Relaxing the law on cannabis: Downgraded two years ago from a class B to class C drug to free police to concentrate on suppliers.

The doctor: 'Lives have been turned around'

"Our clinic in south London is modelled on the Swiss one. It is deliberately sterile - we don't allow Led Zeppelin or joss sticks. It isn't about creating a social ambience. We are treating 20 to 30 patients - pretty entrenched cases.

"We have no published results yet but we have been very surprised at how well some people have turned round their lives. These are people who had been in treatment and doing badly, usually for years."

"Experience [from elsewhere] shows a large number move on within a year, usually to oral methadone. It is the routine and drudgery that does it. The heroin hooks the junkie into a routine that makes them think, 'I want to move on from here.' That is what the Swiss have achieved.

"But it would be a mistake in the UK to think that this endorses a liberal prescribing policy in the sense of a free-for-all. What it endorses is heroin prescribing in an incredibly rigid environment.

"Drug-users don't want to keep coming to see their drug worker three times a day. If they switch to methadone it might be once a day or once every three days."

"Heroin has been prescribed in Britain to a small group of about 500 users for years. But the scheme lost credibility because the drug can be taken away and is given in very small doses out of fear it would be sold on the black market.

"The new clinic allows high doses like the Swiss because it all goes up their arm - it has to be taken on the premises - and we don't have to be institutionally paranoid about where it is ending up."

Professor John Strang is director of the National Addiction Centre at the Maudsley hospital in London. The hospital has opened the first pilot scheme offering drug users heroin on prescription. Three more are planned

The former addict: 'Give them heroin'

"I agree with giving addicts heroin in very controlled conditions. I am not saying the method should be used on a 15-year-old but if someone has tried rehab, counselling and everything else but they keep relapsing and committing crimes, then I believe it should be used as a last resort.

"I was addicted to heroin for 23 years, from the age of 15 to 38. I lived on the street, squatted and went in and out of prisons.

"It wasn't a life choice at 15. I was self-medicating at home because I was brought up around alcohol and Valium, which my father used. He was aggressive. I tried to run away three times - first at 12, then 13, and then finally at 15. I ended up on the streets in London, where I met a lot of other distressed young people who were self-medicating.

"I spent quite a lot of time in prison - I think I went in a total of nine or 10 times - because you will do anything to feed your habit. It controls you and you are its servant. You will either resort to crime or to drug dealing because those are the only ways to fund your habit.

My addiction cost £200 a day and it wasn't numbing me any more, my tolerance was so high. I believed I was going to die that way.

"Every time we left prison with our medication, we'd be selling it by the time we got to the prison gates.

"I tried to give up in rehab when I was 34 but I got thrown out after 28 days for being disruptive. I remember being in tears as I walked out of the gates and I was already back on heroin by the time my train pulled into King's Cross.

"When I finally gave up at 38, it took me 12 months to stabilise myself on methadone. I have seen what methadone addiction can do."

Rob English, 42, is a former heroin addict from south London. He uses the services of Turning Point, a social care organisation

(c) Independent
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