Page 248 - Week 01 - Thursday, 16 February 2006

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One of the things that I have spoken about publicly is the absence, so far as I know—I have not seen it—of a prison health plan. We believe that it is very difficult to assess whether the prison design will reach its human rights potential without viewing that plan. In this case, of course, the minister who is responsible for the call-in on the design is also the minister responsible for the health plan.

We have been told by everybody who is concerned about this issue that the health plan is something that needs to be considered from the very beginning of the design of the prison. It is not something you add on at the end. It is something that needs to be thought of through placement of facilities and a whole lot of other things that I, of course, am not an expert in.

We know that many—indeed, most—offenders are likely to have mental health issues and perhaps drug dependencies, which I suppose is a physical health problem. They may have other physical health problems. It would be very good if people could come out of prison healthier than when they went in, even though that might lead some people to say, “It is a health farm.” I have seen letters to the media along those lines. Indigenous prisoners who are over-represented in the prison population have particular concerns, and we need the evidence that those are addressed. We keep hearing about how the prison is best practice, but we have not yet seen how the government will deal with the physical and mental health needs of our prison population.

Before the building goes ahead, we would like to know how the government plans to keep prisoners healthy. That includes things like exercise space, food programs, safety and physical and mental health services. That needs to be addressed in the plan. I have spoken previously about the need for the health plan to address strategies to reduce blood-borne diseases and perhaps to keep people healthy and to seek rehabilitation and recovery from drug addictions. That is a health issue.

In the 1980s and 1990s, community, justice and government organisations recognised and campaigned for the fight against AIDS. It was understood that prisons were one site where the HIV/AIDS virus was spread. Of course all the efforts were made to make that difficult. We all are reasonably well aware of the things that go on in prisons, regardless of our best efforts. Nonetheless, we have to make sure we are putting in our best efforts. Harm minimisation steps were taken in prisons to prevent the transmission of AIDS. Those included the introduction of condoms, dental dams, bleach for cleaning syringes and education programs. This campaign was quite successful in quelling an AIDS epidemic in our prisons and then, of course, in the broader community.

Since then minimal steps have been taken to prevent the transmission of other diseases in our prisons, mainly hep C. Shared needles are commonplace. It is estimated that one-third of prison inmates are infected. Rates are higher for women, given that a lot of women go to prison because of drug-related offences. Our prisons are incubators for hepatitis C and lead to greater transmission rates when inmates return to the community.

We know that some countries have not swept this issue under the carpet. Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Moldova, Krygastan and Belarus successfully run needle syringe programs in their prisons. A pilot program will soon commence in New Zealand’s prisons.

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