Harm reduction in prisons

Following a damning report into the state of the country’s prisons, the government is under pressure to set up heroin injection rooms in its overcrowded jails, where widespread drug use is leading to rising rates of HIV infection among the nation’s 14,000 inmates. According to government statistics, nearly one in two Portuguese prisoners regularly takes drugs and, of these, 26.8 per cent use injecting drugs like heroin. More worryingly, the report into the state of the nation’s prisons concluded that more than three-quarters of those who use injecting drugs behind bars share their needles, creating the ideal environment for the spread of the HIV virus. In total, 14 per cent of Portuguese prisoners are infected with the HIV virus, while 396 prisoners have full-blown AIDS, the report compiled by the office of Portugal’s justice ombudsman said.

The prevalence of HIV/AIDS, along with other communicable diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis, helped give Portugal the highest rate of prisoner deaths in the EU last year. There were 60 deaths for every 10,000 inmates in Portugal last year, compared to just 20 in Spain. To slow the spread of HIV in jails and improve this record, the prison report recommended the government set up injection rooms in prisons, where inmates would be provided with clean needles and a place to shoot up in a supervised setting. Similar schemes were first set up in Switzerland, amidst much controversy, and have since been put in place in Spain and Germany. The aim is to reduce the harm that illegal drugs cause to the users themselves as well as to society as a whole, a philosophy known as ‘harm reduction’.