Heroin addicts in jails to get sterilising tablets

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT plans to supply bleach tablets to prisoners hooked on heroin in a new attempt to stop the spread of HIV in jails. Medical experts at the London School of Hygiene and tropical Medicine have told Home Office ministers that the tablets, if used properly, could sterilise needles. The shared use of needles is a major cause of HIV infection.

But last night, prison reformers opposed the plan and one doctor dubbed it a "preposterous compromise". They argue that the introduction of needle exchanges in prisons is the only way to stop the spread of hepatitis B and the HIV virus amongst prisoners.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party is opposing the introduction of the bleach tablets, which it claims will encourage drug use in prisons.

Statistics from the Home Office show that the number of heroin seizures in UK prisons has trebled in the past five years while cannabis finds have halved. The risk of infection is high, with prisoners sharing needles which have been smuggled past prison staff.

So endemic is drug-taking in prisons that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee is calling for sniffer dogs to detect drugs smuggled into cells.

The committee will publish a report today demanding that every prisoner be tested for drug addiction when they arrive in jail so they can be given help.

Robin Corbett, the Labour chairman of the committee, said he supported the idea of needle exchanges. "There ought to be a proper system of needle exchanges in prisons in cases where prisoners are going through rehabilitation," he said.

This view is shared by Dr Adrian Garfoot, who has provided treatment to nearly 1,000 drug users at the Laybourne Clinic in London. Of these, nearly 70 per cent have spent time in prison.

Dr Garfoot believes that the introduction of sterilising tablets in jails is a ridiculous compromise, unlikely to work. "What would we think if an anaesthetist dipped his needle in Domestos before an operation? The very least that should be done ought to be the provision of needle exchange facilities. Instead the authorities are proposing a preposterous compromise. This is medically unacceptable."

Nick Flynn, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, also supports needle exchanges. "If the Prison Service can't guarantee that prisoners will not use needles they should offer needle exchanges," he said.

Robert James, an advisor for the HIV prevention charity Mainliners, said the introduction of bleach tablets was a "half-way" measure.

"Bleach is good for cleaning basins but usually only effective if the needle is left in overnight," he said. "You can't do that when you are desperate for a hit and you have three other cell mates waiting to share the needle. We would prefer people had access to needle exchanges rather than sharing a needle with 30 people."

But, referring to the plan to introduce bleach tablets, David Lidington, shadow Home Affairs spokesman said: "There must be a risk that the result of this will encourage surreptitious drug use and encourage prisoners to get new supplies. It's quite extraordinary especially when the Government is boasting that it wants more people remanded after drug testing but is setting up a system where people are able to continue with their drug habits."