Leading article: Irresponsible behaviour

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The Independent Online

Get ready for the outcry. Six heroin-addicted prisoners are poised to receive compensation from the Home Office in an out-of-court settlement. The men, who were on methadone before they began their sentences, were put on detoxification programmes once in prison that quickly and sharply lowered their supplies of the heroin substitute. Their lawyers claim this, in effect, forced their clients into "cold turkey", amounting to clinical negligence and a breach of human rights legislation by the prison authorities.

The level of compensation has yet to be decided, but already there are complaints that paying compensation to criminals is wrong under any circumstances. Others say the very existence of drug treatment programmes inside proves our jails are too "soft". The opponents of The Human Rights Act are in loud voice too. The Conservative Home Affairs spokesman, David Davis, suggests the Government capitulated because it did not want to be embarrassed by losing the case under legislation it introduced itself.

There is a case for arguing that the High Court should have been permitted to reach a verdict, allowing the full airing of all the arguments. The outcome is, nevertheless, welcome. This was a breach of guidelines by prison officers as the inmates did not consent to the treatment. The case for clinical negligence is strong too. "Cold turkey" is notoriously likely to result in a relapse. Moreover, prisoners enjoy the same rights to a proper standard of medical treatment - including for drug addiction - as any other patient. In this case, they did not get it.

This will prove a costly blunder. Almost 200 further inmates are understood to have lodged similar claims. But the real scandal here is less the treatment of these particular individuals, than the continued absence of a well-funded drug detoxification programme in our prisons. This problem would not have arisen had one been in place. The Government pledged £28m in funding for a treatment programme for inmates in 2006. But only £12m has been delivered this year.

This shortfall is irresponsible. Roughly half of all prisoners are on drugs. Most repeatedly end up in jail because they steal to finance their addiction. All the evidence suggests that giving criminals proper drug treatment in jail would lead to lower reoffending rates. If our political leaders were less interested in winning cheap plaudits and more interested in reducing crime, they would devote their fullest attention to the matter of drug treatment in our prisons. Instead, the depressing truth is that most seem determined to persist with a discredited and failing approach.