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"Call for free condoms to combat spread of HIV in prisons" by Eric Allison and Paul Lewis, The Guardian

14th November 2005

Prisoners should be supplied with free condoms and given access to a needle-exchange system in an effort to combat soaring rates of hepatitis C and HIV among inmates, a report says today.  

The study, published by the Prison Reform Trust and the National Aids Trust, reveals that rates of hepatitis C and HIV in prisons are 20 times and 15 times higher respectively than in the public.  

The survey of prison healthcare managers across the UK found a third of prisons had no HIV policy, one in five had no hepatitis C policy and more than half had no sexual health policy.

Prison healthcare, the report authors say, is "substandard" and many prisoners have no access to condoms, disinfecting tablets, clean needles or healthcare information.

The director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyons, said: "Courts sentence people to custody not to inadequate healthcare, but the prison population is marked by poor health.   "It is time the NHS developed good, well-resourced policy and practice to tackle blood-borne disease in prison."  

She called upon the NHS to develop a programme aimed at reducing the spread of blood-borne disease in prisons.   "Anything else would amount to double punishment and lead to public health risk," she said. 

A recent Home Office study found that about 2% of prisoners inject drugs, although it conceded there may be significant under-reporting of drug addiction due to stigma and illegality. Today's report recommends that prisons carry out regular anonymous blood tests to establish more accurate levels of HIV and hepatitis C infection.  

In order to avoid the spread of sexually transmitted infections, male and female contraceptives - which are already distributed in Scottish prisons - should be made accessible free of charge to all prisoners so they do not have to request them, the authors say.  

They also argue that the promotion of a "lower-risk" drug campaign among prisoners, methadone programmes and a system of needle exchange would help to improve the quality of healthcare in prisons and reduce infections.  

Last April John Shelley, a long-term prisoner in Long Lartin jail, began legal proceedings against the home secretary claiming the refusal of the Prison Service to introduce a needle-exchange policy represents a real and immediate risk to his life. The Department of Health, doctors and drug-user support groups, say the current policy of distributing disinfectant tablets gives addicts inadequate protection from blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis.  

April 2006 is the completion date for the transfer of prisoners' healthcare to the NHS, which has pledged to provide an equivalent standard of service in prisons as in the wider community.  

© The Guardian