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Letter to the Editor: Random drug tests are not the answer

2nd November 2003

Dear Sunday Times:

I was surprised by Prison Director Sean Aylward's statement that drug use in prisons is "no worse" than in Irish society ("Prisoners to undergo mandatory drug tests", October 26th) when numerous studies over the last 10 years have demonstrated that levels of drug use - particularly injection drug use - are very high among prisoners.  

Research tells us that 20-40% of Irish prisoners use heroin on an occasional or regular basis while incarcerated.  (By way of comparison, statistics released this month by the National Advisory Committee of Drugs found lifetime prevalence heroin use among the general public to be 0.5%) The research also tells us that as many as one in five injection drug users inject for the first time while in prison and that 40-60% of incarcerated injection drug users share injecting equipment in prison (thereby creating a significant risk of HIV and hepatitis C transmission, diseases whose prevalence are already many times higher among prisoners than in the general population).   Director's Aylward's comments are therefore not only at odds with the scientific evidence; they neatly avoid the very real public health issues that demand a pragmatic response from the Government.

The implementation of random drug testing of prisoners will make this situation worse by encouraging drug users to move away from easily detectable drugs such as cannabis to less detectable options such as injection heroin.  This has been the experience in many prisons I have visited in Canada, Germany, and Switzerland, which is why some have opted not to use random drug tests, or not to test for cannabis.  In the face of significant HIV and hepatitis C epidemics among prisoners (epidemics driven by injection drug use) this is pragmatic public health policy.

That justice department officials "played down" this international evidence is not surprising when they appear unaware of the research on drug use in their own prisons.  Likewise, the Prison Director's statement would indicate that he is either unfamiliar with the evidence, or that he is willing to ignore it in favour of public relations.  Neither scenario instils confidence that the new prison drugs policy will be based upon evidence and best practice, or that it will address the significant public health and human rights issues raised by the Government's continued failure to implement a pragmatic, harm reduction-based drug and HIV prevention strategy in prisons. 

Yours truly,

Rick Lines, MA
Executive Director
Irish Penal Reform Trust