Australian policy makers must act to reduce the spread of blood-borne viruses (BBVs) in prisons or we won’t be able to achieve critical public health goals like eliminating hepatitis C. This was the call in a consensus statement released by the Harm Reduction in Prisons Working Group.
The statement outlines an evidence-based approach to reducing the spread of BBVs and other injecting-related harms in prisons. Calling on policy makers to act, Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council (AADC) CEO and consensus statement signatory, Melanie Walker, said. “The spread of BBVs in prison settings is currently like a hole in the rabbit proof fence of our National BBV and Sexually Transmissible Infections (STI) Strategies and this consensus statement outlines how we can work together to fix this gaping hole.
drug use and the spread of BBVs in prisons affect everybody because people who leave prison go back into the community to their families and friends
“The number and breadth of organisations represented by signatories to this consensus statement is
significant. What we all agree on is that it’s really important that the full range of harm reduction options that are available in the broader community are mirrored in custodial settings if we are to successfully achieve public health outcomes for all.”
Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW Sydney and consensus statement signatory, Professor Alison Ritter, AO, said drug use and the spread of BBVs in prisons affect everybody because people who leave prison go back into the community to their families and friends.
According to experts behind the statement, Australia has committed to eliminating hepatitis C by 2030, but right now prisons are the weakest link in the strategy to reaching this goal.
What is harm reduction?
Injecting drug use can result in a number of fatal or serious harms including overdose, BBV transmission and injecting-related injuries. But all three of these harms can be reduced and/or prevented through effective harm reduction programs.
Harm reduction involves helping people to improve their health through providing practical and non-judgmental support. This involves meeting people where they are at, acknowledging that abstinence is not the only way to reduce harms arising from drug use.
“There is a wealth of evidence that supports the effectiveness of harm reduction programs,” said Prof.
Ritter AO. “Harm reduction is effective at reaching the most marginalised members of society who would otherwise not access healthcare and it has also been proven to improve prison safety for both detainees and staff.”
Prisons are high-risk environments for the spread of BBVs due to the lack of access to new and sterile injecting equipment, which results in people sharing unsterile equipment. Consequently, people in prisons continue to experience higher rates of hepatitis C and HIV than the general population.
“Despite Australia being an international leader in the provision of Needle and Syringe Programs to the
general public, we have fallen woefully behind by excluding people in custodial settings from accessing this vital and lifesaving service,” said Prof. Ritter AO.
Prison settings also provide an opportunity to engage people who have a history of injecting drug use with health and well-being services that they may not have previously been able to access in the community.
These interventions not only make prisons safer, they also help to ensure better health outcomes for the
communities to which people are returning after their release.
From a public health perspective it doesn’t even matter whether you care about prisoner health or not … failing to address the spread of BBVs in custodial settings is a broader public health concern that directly affects Australian families and communities.
Policy makers must act
Calling on policy makers to act, the statement pointed out that Australia won’t be able to achieve critical public health goals like eliminating hepatitis C when it’s ignoring people in prisons.
“From a public health perspective it doesn’t even matter whether you care about prisoner health or not. The fact is that people come in and out of prisons and go back out into the community – so failing to address the spread of BBVs in custodial settings is a broader public health concern that directly affects Australian families and communities,” says Ms. Walker.
The consensus statement will provide assistance to policy makers at all levels of government in applying a broad and comprehensive approach to harm reduction in, and outside of, prisons.
The Working Group is a national cohort of health practitioners, researchers, sector representatives and advocates and is convened by the Social Policy Research Centre’s Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW Sydney.
Read the full consensus statement.