Ireland takes step back on drugs in prisons

Da: “The Senlis Council” News Release, Paris 5 august 2005
International think tank condemns new law that will spread HIV and Hepatitis C New policy will put lives at risk, says Director

Ireland’s move to eliminate clean needle distribution in prisons this autumn will present a serious threat to public health, The Senlis Council, an international drug policy think tank, said today.

The new “zero-tolerance” regime was presented in a speech by Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell at the 57th Annual Conference of the Prison Officers’ Association. The law, which will come to effect in the autumn, will also make drug testing in Irish prisons mandatory.

The legislation disregards recommendations from the top international health body, the World Health Organisation (WHO), to distribute clean syringes and disinfectant to drug users in prisons to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

“This is a grave setback for public health in Ireland,” said Emmanuel Reinert, Executive Director of The Senlis Council. “This new law will encourage the spread of disease in the penal system, and will have serious consequences not only in prisons but on society in general.”

Prisons often have high instances of drug use. In Ireland, 90% of drug-injecting inmates have been shown to be infected with Hepatitis C, a 1999 study shows. The same study estimates that between 40% and 70% of drug-injecting prisoners have shared equipment while in prison.

“Zero-tolerance has generally never paid off,” said Dr Massimo Barra, Vice-President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “Public health promotion is in the interest of us all. Such measures have been proven to be key elements in strategies targeted at the most vulnerable groups, like drug users. Interventions should be cautious and based on evidence rather than on ideology.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and The Senlis Council are currently collaborating on the promotion of public health measures for drug users, and argue that the drug-use problem must be tackled as a health issue and not a political or ideological one.

The Senlis Council strongly urged the Irish government to reconsider the introduction of such damaging policies.

“An aim for drug-free prisons is illusory,” added Emmanuel Reinert. “We cannot ignore the dangers of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C transmission within the prison system, but by introducing a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach, that is what is being done. The reality is that drug injection will continue, whether inmates are tested or not, and whether they have clean needles or not. It is vital that this problem is approached differently if HIV or Hepatitis C epidemics are to be avoided.”

Numerous studies have shown that providing prisoners with clean needles and disinfectant fluids, not only in prisons but on injecting drug users in general, helps reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. The WHO has repeatedly recommended the introduction of such measures in prisons to control the incidence of these diseases. A WHO May 2005 study states that such public health measures do not increase the rate of drug use in prisons, while bringing infection rates under control.

“The citizens of Ireland should be outraged at the introduction of such laws,” Reinert said. “We urge the Government to reconsider and take into account the scientific evidence that such measures prevent the spread of disease while not encouraging increased use of drugs.”

Contact: The Senlis Council – Jane Francis Tel: +33 1 49 96 63 70 – Fax: +33 1 49 96 63 73 – email – mobile: +33 6 60 26 19 82