Experts recommend syringe exchange in prisons

The ministries of Health and Justice commissioned a panel of experts in January to evaluate the pandemic of infectious and contagious diseases that has occurred in Portuguese prisons. After seven months of investigation, the panel has written a report with a number of recommendations, including a new programme to exchange needles used in controlled drug taking for sterilised ones, overseen by on-site medical staff.

The panel has also proposed the introduction of syringe vending machines. However, instead of money, the prisoner inserts a dirty needle and a clean syringe kit is released. Even though the finer details are still being finalised, it is not the first time these measures have been discussed. A law passed in 1999, decriminalising drug use in prisons, highlights the benefits of the exchange programmes. The controversial issue will be discussed thoroughly by the national prison service and the government, in an effort to eradicate the infectious and contagious diseases pandemic in Portuguese jails.

Almost 40 per cent of prisoners in Portugal have hepatitis. This can be broken down further where, out of the 12,728 prisoners, counted at the end of last year, 2,500 had Hepatitis C. There were 433 sufferers of Hepatitis B and 240 prisoners had both types. Almost 10 per cent were infected with HIV or Aids – 56 women and 1,093 men.

A professor of criminal psychology believed that it was cheaper to provide sterilised syringes than to treat prisoners for infectious and contagious diseases.

The panel of experts recommended more therapy for drug addicts as well as a methadone programme in prisons for heroin users.