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Letter to the Editor: Drug Use in Prisons

14th February 2004

Dear Madam,

Gerard Reynolds criticised the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) for our advocacy of syringe exchange in prisons (Letters, February 13th) calling those who support these effective and safe programmes "do-gooders".  We at the IPRT believe that preventing the transmission of potentially deadly diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C in Ireland is indeed to do good, and we are pleased to join such other "do-gooders" as the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, Merchants Quay Ireland, researchers at Trinity College Dublin, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and the Governments of Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in supporting the provision of sterile syringes to prisoners as an important public health programme.

Mr. Reynolds notes that levels of drug use in Irish prisons are significant. This reality demands that the same broad spectrum of drug and HIV prevention programmes available in community, including the provision of sterile syringes, be made available to prisoners.  This no more condones drug use than do needle exchange programmes in the community.  Rather it is a pragmatic and effective response to an important public health concern. Prison syringe distribution programmes currently operate in more than 40 prisons in 6 countries, and the number is growing every year.  They have been proven effective in reducing HIV and Hep C transmission without increasing levels of drug use or drug availability or compromising staff safety.  It is for this reason that syringe distribution programmes are generally recognised as best practice in this aspect of prison health.  

Mr. Reynolds' letter mistakenly suggests that Ireland is in the forefront in addressing HIV and Hep C prevention in prisons.  In fact, Ireland ranks near the bottom of the EU league table in this regard. The health of prisoners is an important issue of public health concern, and by permitting this unacceptable status quo to continue our Government is failing to meet its obligations to protect the health of both prisoners and the public at large.

Yours truly,

Rick Lines, MA
Executive Director
Irish Penal Reform Trust