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McDowell's Prison Drug Plan "puts political posturing before public health", says IPRT

21st November 2005

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has criticised Justice Minister Michael McDowell's recipe for so-called "drug free prisons", noting that his plans to introduce mandatory drug testing while denying HIV prevention programmes such as syringe exchange will only make current prison health problems worse.

Speaking earlier today to a group of Prison Governors on the Government's proposed new Prison Drug Strategy, the Minister confirmed his intention to introduce mandatory drug testing (MDT) in prisons in spite of the evidence that the scheme does not achieve the results Mr. McDowell claims.  The Minister also reiterated his opposition to the introduction of prison syringe exchange programmes as a means to prevent the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C in prisons via syringe sharing, despite the international success of such programmes and their support by the World Health Organization.

"The Minister's speech is a vivid illustration of his ignorance of evidence-based prison drugs policy," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines.  "The failure of mandatory drug testing and the success of prison syringe exchange is well documented internationally and easily accessible for anyone interested in examining it.  That the Minister's comments are so at odds with international best practice suggests the Government's new policy is based upon a desire to appear 'tough on drugs', rather than on evidence of effectiveness. In his comments today, the Minister is clearly putting political posturing over public health." 

Earlier this year the prison service in Scotland announced plans 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.

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."  

"It is indeed ironic that on the same day UNAIDS announced that the number of HIV infections worldwide has topped 40 million persons, our Justice Minister has announced that he has no intention of introducing life-saving HIV prevention programmes into Irish prisons."

"Drug use in Irish prisons is a serious problem requiring a serious solution.  Failed gimmicks such as MDT are an unwelcome distraction to those of us working to promote comprehensive and effective responses to drug use and HIV/Hepatitis C in prisons based upon solid international evidence.  The Government must abandon its plans to impose this failed scheme and instead implement comprehensive drug treatment and HIV/Hepatitis C prevention measures such as syringe exchange that reflect international best practice," said Mr. Lines.
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