Consulting on prison health services.

I met this morning with 3 prison officers and their union, the CPSU to discuss their response to the Micheal Moore report into a possible needle and syringe exchange program (NSP) operating at the AMC (our local jail). It was a good meeting, constructive and cordial but I was left with no uncertainty about the corrections staff views on whether a NSP should be introduced at the jail.

The officers, who told me that they spoke on behalf of all staff, repeated their total opposition to a NSP. They believe such a move will impact on their safety in the workplace and would also make them complicit in drug taking by prisoners.

The Moore report has answers to both of these concerns by arguing that a regulated NSP would improve safety by removing the market for the unregulated one which operates now and by a few simple amendments to the Corrections Management Act 2007 the Assembly could legislate to allow a NSP thereby removing any concerns of the prison staff regarding complicity in illegal behavior.

Of course it’s not that simple.

What we do know is that prison populations are perhaps the most marginalized and disadvantaged when it comes to health and access to health services (did you know that prisoners lose their rights to a Medicare card). We also know, from prisoner health screening, that almost two-thirds of prisoners tested at the AMC return a positive test for Hepatitis C.

In helping to reduce the transmission of Blood Borne Viruses (BBV’s) in the community one of the most effective public health tools is providing drug user’s with easy access to clean needles. We distribute needles across Canberra through non-government organisations and through vending machines to meet this need in the community.

I wonder if it is possible to offer the same health services in a jail that we offer to people living in the community? That is what the Moore report argues we should do. The prison officers take a different view.

As Health Minister I have publicly argued the benefits of NSP’s. The cost of combatting and treating BBV is huge in terms of precious public health dollars and that’s without counting the human cost of living with such debilitating illnesses.

Aside from the trying to address the important public health issues I acknowledge that a NSP will be unlikely to succeed if we do not have the support of the staff in the jail behind it.

The final date for submissions on the Moore report close on 8th September. The Government will then consider a final submission before responding to the Moore report by the end of the year.

What do you think?