The prisons minister, Joyce Quinn, has asked officials to look into the possibility of setting up needle exchange schemes and to report back to her by the end of March.
The move came after figures showed a rise of almost 50 per cent in hepatitis C cases in prisons within a single year.
In the same year, a range of counselling and therapy schemes had been set up to help prisoners deal with drug addiction.
Ms Quinn said in a written Commons answer that although she had "no plans at present" to introduce a needle exchange scheme, she had commissioned advice on the subject.
Last night, a Prison Service official said the possibility of setting up a scheme was under active consideration.
"I think we recognise that there's a problem there and it is being tackled through a group of officials. They will look specifically at the needle exchange scheme as one particular way round it," he said.
In answer to questions from Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, Ms Quinn revealed that the number of hepatitis C cases reported in prisons rose from 543 in 1995-96 to 760 in 1996-7. He said ministers should accept that drug abuse was endemic inside prisons and should tackle the problem accordingly.
"If hepatitis is spreading in prisons, so possibly is Aids. The cause is almost always people sharing needles. It can be curbed very simply and cheaply with needle exchanges," he said.
He said random testing schemes could actually be increasing the use of hard drugs in prisons. Because cannabis stayed in the system longer than heroin, prisoners knew it was safe to take heroin on a Friday because they would not be tested over the weekend. If they took cannabis, it might still register in tests conducted the following Monday.
In 1996-97, anti-addiction schemes were set up in 19 prisons around the country, ranging from counselling programmes to "therapeutic communities" in which prisoners with drug problems live separately and receive intensive treatment.
Those schemes have been evaluated over the past two years by PDM Consulting, who have recently presented a draft report to ministers. Although the findings have not been made public, it is known that the firm has looked both at schemes which aim to achieve total abstention and at others which take a more pragmatic approach.
A spokesman for the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust, which runs a programme in several prisons called "Twelve Steps to Abstinence", said it broadly supported the idea of needle exchanges though it preferred its own approach.
"Our position is that people in prison should have the same drug treatment services as are available to them on the outside, and needle exchange schemes are one of them," he said.
A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service, which allows prisoners free access to multi-purpose sterilising tablets, said he would not favour such a move because needles could be used as weapons.
"If a prisoner fills a needle with blood and takes a member of staff hostage, that is a very serious situation," he said.Reuse content