Prison staff 'should let addicts clean needles': Aids advisers propose measures to curb spread of virus in jails

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PRISONERS should be given equipment to sterilise needles used for injecting drugs, according to a government advisory committee on Aids.

The committee, which is due to report later this summer, is also expected to recommend the distribution of condoms in jails to curb the spread of HIV. While acknowledging that both measures are fraught with legal, political and practical difficulties, the committee will urge Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to implement them on public health grounds.

The recommendations follow the most detailed study undertaken on the treatment of Aids within the prison system.

Members of the Aids Advisory Committee, which will report to Home Office ministers and senior officials in the prison service, have rejected suggestions that needle-exchange schemes should be introduced in jails. However, the committee will say that sterilising agents should be available to ensure that when prisoners inject drugs, they will at least do so with clean needles.

In its report, the committee is expected to point out that many prison officers would be loathe to make sterilising agents available because they could be seen as encouraging the use of drugs. Agents such as bleach could also be dangerous if they were misused. The committee says the scheme could only be made to work if it is 'sold' to prison staff first.

But with up to 20 per cent of sentenced inmates - 7,500 prisoners - believed to be addicted to drugs, the Home Office will give serious consideration to the advisory committee's recommendation.

Equally, the committee is aware that prison officers might be reluctant to distribute condoms, with some senior managers expressing scepticism over the policy. There are also legal difficulties: the Home Office has insisted until recently that prison cells are 'public places', making homosexual acts illegal.

The committee will tell Mr Howard that he must decide whether the legal hurdle is insuperable, but says that in its opinion, condoms should be made available.

Officials believe that the extent of HIV in prisons has been exaggerated, and that the rate of infection is unlikely to be higher than 4 per cent. But they accept that information is patchy and have ordered a comprehensive survey.

The survey will form part of a wider programme aimed at assessing the health of prisoners in Britain's jails. A report yesterday by Rosemary Wool, the prison service's director of health care, pointed to the need for better statistics on the general mental and physical health of prisoners.

The study said that inmates were eight times more likely to report sick than the rest of the population.