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AMA backs prison needle exchange as part of broader plan to improve health

The AMA has called for a nationally coordinated approach to health in the criminal justice system as a prison in the ACT is set to become the first in Australia to trial a needle exchange program. Highlighting the strong link between imprisonment and poor health, the AMA said there was a need to ensure offenders received continuous, coordinated and integrated treatment throughout their contact with the criminal justice system, from their first point of contact with correctional services to their successful reintegration into the community.

19 Aug 2012

The AMA has called for a nationally coordinated approach to health in the criminal justice system as a prison in the ACT is set to become the first in Australia to trial a needle exchange program.

Highlighting the strong link between imprisonment and poor health, the AMA said there was a need to ensure offenders received continuous, coordinated and integrated treatment throughout their contact with the criminal justice system, from their first point of contact with correctional services to their successful reintegration into the community.

Releasing the AMA’s Position Statement on Health and the Criminal Justice System 2012 – which backs needle exchange programs in prisons - Vice President Professor Geoffrey Dobb said imprisonment could accentuate and further entrench the social and health disadvantages that contribute to incarceration in the first place, and added that improving the health of prisoners would enhance the wellbeing of the broader community.

“Access to quality health care for prisoners and detainees has important implications for the health of the wider community,” Professor Dobb said. “With the constant interchange between prisons and the community, health problems and medical conditions experienced in custody become issues of public health for the community when people are released from prison or detention.”

The release of the AMA Position Statement coincided with an announcement by the ACT Government of plans to trial a national-first needle exchange program in Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre.

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said the system – which has yet to receive the backing of prison guards - was being tested as a way to help tackle the spread of blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis C in prison, and would be conducted on a one-for-one basis.

“It is essentially a medical model,” Ms Gallagher said. “It would be a matter between the detainee and the doctor about whether or not access to sterile injecting equipment is in their clinical interests as part of treatment.

“There is only clean injecting equipment provided if dirty equipment is handed in.”

Ms Gallagher said about 50 per cent of prisoners in the Centre had hepatitis C, an “extraordinarily high” number, and there was evidence of drug use in the jail.

In its Position Statement the AMA backs needle and syringe exchange programs in prisons, and Professor Dobb said that, as a group, prisoners had health needs far greater than the general population, with “high levels of mental illness, chronic and communicable diseases, injury, poor dental health, and disability”.

“Many prisoners come from disadvantaged backgrounds characterised by high levels of unemployment, low educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction, insecure housing, and illiteracy and innumeracy,” Professor Dobb said, adding that rates of imprisonment were disproportionately high among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In its position statement the AMA said the criminal justice system was one of the ways to deliver health care to people who largely existed on the fringe of society and were otherwise difficult to establish regular contact with.

Professor Dobb said prisoners should retain their entitlement to Medicare and the PBS, including their Medicare card, while in prison.

Among the AMA’s recommendations are that state health authorities, rather than corrective services, should be responsible for providing health care in prisons, that the principle of continuous health care be embedded in correction practices and procedures, that upon admission prisoners be screened for health problems, that specialist treatment be available for prisoners with drug and alcohol disorders, and that mental health specialists be involved in the day-to-day management of prisoners with psychiatric disorders.

AR

 


Published: 19 Aug 2012