Jail drugs treatment programme praised for helping addicts

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The Independent Online
HEROIN USERS in prison should be given substitute drugs to combat the growing problem of addiction among inmates, a study of the first drugs maintenance programme in a British jail has concluded.

The survey of the Drug Treatment Unit (DTU) at Saughton prison, Edinburgh, where heroin users are prescribed the synthetic opiate methadone in an effort to help cure their addiction, says the availability of replacement drugs has 'significantly' reduced abuse among prisoners.

The report, published yesterday, praises the programme as a model which should be introduced in other jails.

The Saughton scheme was set up in March last year in response to problems of intravenous drug abuse and the spread of HIV/Aids among imates. Research revealed that 67 per cent of drug-using prisoners had injected illegal substances while in jail - many of them sharing needles.

Under the programme, addicts are encouraged to sign up for a 28-day harm reduction routine designed to wean them off drugs. Opiate users are given steadily decreasing amounts of methadone, while sleeping pills are available for those addicted to sedatives like Temazepam.

Inmates on the programme are isolated from other prisoners in the jail's medical wing and receive intensive counselling before they are released into the residential blocks, where drugs, smuggled into the prison, are more readily obtained.

The decision to offer addicts substitute drugs sparked controversy when the drug treatment unit opened. Critics argued that the prescription service blurred the distinction between punishment and drug rehabilitation in jails. Legal drugs should not replace illegal ones behind bars, they said.

The report's authors - David Shewan and Margaret Reid of Glasgow Caledonian University, and Sandy Macpherson of Strathclyde University - who spent a year evaluating the programme, reject the criticism. Healthcare services in prisons should mirror those available in the community, they argue. 'Where it is seen fit by the courts to send drug users to prison, then it can be expected of the prison that it provides comparable health care.' Methadone was made available to addicts in Edinburgh in 1988.

The report concludes that with 'a robust relationship between completing the drug reduction programme and lower levels of drug use', there is a 'strong argument in favour of penal establishments making adequate provison for reduction prescribing'.

Although some inmates at Saughton complain that staff restrict access to the DTU to all but the most 'promising' cases, most have welcomed the programme.

Paul McKenzie, 23, a recent recruit to the unit, said: 'The medical staff treat you like a human being which makes you want to give up. I know that if I wanted to get heroin, it would only take one telephone call. But here, isolated from temptation and on methadone, I have decided to give up the needle.'

(Photograph omitted)