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Call for needle exchanges in prisons

The rights of prisoners to have access to the same standard of healthcare as the rest of the community will be tested if a case against the Home Secretary is allowed to proceed at a court hearing today, the 13th April 2005.

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13 April 2005

The rights of prisoners to have access to the same standard of healthcare as the rest of the community will be tested if a case against the Home Secretary is allowed to proceed at a court hearing today, the 13th April 2005.

Sean Humber, prisoners’ rights expert at Leigh Day & Co. is bringing the case on behalf of John Shelley, an inmate at Long Lartin prison near Evesham. He argues that the health of drug-using prisoners is at risk from having to share dirty needles with other prisoners. In addition, other prisoners and prison staff are also at risk through injury from hidden dirty needles. It will be argued in court that failure to provide needle exchanges violates articles 2, 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Needle exchange programmes

Nearly all health authorities have needle exchange programmes serving their communities and it is generally acknowledged that they are an important way of reducing the risk of cross infection of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C amongst drug users. In 2002 the Department of Health took over the running of healthcare in prisons and the prison service stated its commitment to “Providing prisoners with access to the same range and quality of services as the general public receives”.

75% of drug users share needles in prison

Home Office Studies over the last 8 years estimate that between 2 and 7.2% of prisoners inject drugs whilst in prison. A study in 1997/8 revealed that 7.8% of prisoners had Hepatitis B, 7.5% had Hepatitis C and 0.36% were HIV positive. 75% of the drug users shared needles in prison.

Recognising that there is a problem, the Prison Service is proposing to introduce sterilising tablets into prisons to allow drug users to disinfect needles. However scientific and medical evidence suggests that this does not kill all of the Hepatitis and HIV viruses and that this method is therefore less effective than allowing drug users to use new, sterile syringes.

The Prison Service is worried that a needle exchange would increase drug misuse in prisons, an argument that was prevalent before needle exchanges were first introduced in the community. However a review of syringe exchanges in prisons in Europe in 2003 showed that drug use either decreased or remained stable.

Sean Humber started judicial review proceedings against the Home Secretary in November 2004 for his failure to introduce needle exchanges in prisons, or to even conduct a trial into the practice. On reading the application for the judicial review, the judge refused permission for the case to continue. However a renewed application will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice on 13th April where the judge will listen to the arguments for the case to proceed further.

Sean argues: “Prisoners are entitled to the same level of care as everyone else.  Needle exchange systems are available in the wider community to protect individuals against infection with life threatening blood-borne disease.  The same level of care should be available to prisoners”

For more information please contact Sean Humber on 020 7650 1200.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

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Human rights

Who worked on this case

  • Sean Humber
  • 020 7650 1200