Prison-based needle & syringe program doomed without government leadership.

The ACT Government is being urged to show political leadership and retain control over the introduction of a needle syringe program (NSP) at the Alexander Maconochie Centre – ACT Prison as a means to prevent the spread of blood borne viruses.

The ACT Government supported prison-based needle exchange in the lead up to the last Territory election and says it remains committed to implementing a prison needle syringe program. However, implementation of the Government’s policy has been blocked due to strident opposition from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). This has become a key issue in finalizing Enterprise Bargaining Agreement for ACT Corrective Services Staff.

In a media release from the ACT Government, Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury said “While maintaining the Government’s commitment to implementing an NSP in the AMC, I also understand the need for this to be developed with input from ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) staff, and the Deed of Agreement will ensure that we recognise the genuine concerns of staff as we consider any proposed models.”

“The Deed sets out very clearly the process for engaging staff in the development of an NSP model, including a joint working group to develop a model, a staff ballot process to determine support for any proposed model and a commitment not to implement a model that is unable to gain majority support from voting staff.”

Hepatitis Australia and Hepatitis ACT are urging Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury not to allow the Community and Public Sector Union the right to veto the introduction of the planned needle syringe program, saying this would “spell the death knell for good public health policy”.

Hepatitis Australia is calling on the ACT Government to urgently reconsider its position. This decision sets a dangerous precedent, which fundamentally undermines democratic processes by granting public servants a veto over the implementation of public health policies.

“What we need is strong political leadership, not a capitulation on good health policy. This is a decision for Government, not public servants or unions. The stakes are simply too great to leave it to people who are not experts in public health policy,” said Ms Helen Tyrrell, CEO of Hepatitis Australia.

In Australia and overseas, needle and syringe programs have proven to be a highly effective prevention strategy against blood borne viruses. The proposal for a prison based NSP in the ACT was to be the first of it’s kind in Australia.  Internationally, prisons that introduce needle syringe programs report a significant reduction in transmission risks for blood-borne viruses, including hepatitis C.

Ms Tyrrell says “It’s very simple – if a group of public servants are allowed to veto Government policy if they don’t like the implementation plan we can kiss good-bye to prison needle exchange in ACT, and possibly Australia.”

Hepatitis C is a highly infectious blood-borne virus that is frequently transmitted through the sharing of injecting equipment. Hepatitis C affects more than 230,000 Australians and is the leading cause of serious liver disease (cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure) in Australia. This year alone, more than 630 Australian lives will be claimed by hepatitis C-related liver disease.

View the Hepatitis Australia Media Release   |   Read the Consensus Statement on Hepatitis C in Prisons