Dose of reality in revelations of jail drug use

  1. Terrapinzflyer
    Dose of reality in revelations of jail drug use
    Corrections policies should reflect the fact that drug abuse is rife.

    A SPATE of drug overdoses reported at a Melbourne women's prison may be a bitter pill for Corrections Victoria, but anyone who has spent time in jail would be far more sanguine about the news.

    However shocking the law-abiding public may find jail overdoses, the attitude of most prisoners would be that it's a consequence of a lifestyle choice and no more than that, with the result that they almost unthinkingly risk their lives every day - and by its failure to allow needle exchange programs, the Victorian Government could be considered complicit in this.

    That little is done is scandalous. Research shows that 50 per cent of prisoners have a history of injecting drug use and about half of these continue to inject while in prison. If further evidence of the problem is needed, consider the fact that, in 2007, 35 per cent of prisoners tested positive to hepatitis C antibodies - 40 times higher than in the general population.

    Even more unsavoury than the attitudes of prisoners are the lengths drug users inside prison walls will go to get high. Heroin, amphetamines, marijuana, small quantities of ecstasy and, more rarely, LSD are mostly smuggled into prisons by visitors. Drug-sniffing dog teams circulate between prisons so drug couriers hide dope in body cavities - vaginas or backsides.

    In full strip searches, to which all prisoners must submit following a contact visit, prison officers will pay close attention to the inmate's anus.

    Syringes are forbidden inside prison so they are shortened by cutting down before being smuggled in with drugs. They are used hundreds of times with little cleaning, but fastidious care is taken trying to keep them sharp by filing the tips down on the striker strips on matchboxes. It does little good.

    In acts of determination shocking to an outsider, syringes disintegrating with age and hardly sharper than a ballpoint pen are used to gouge their way through flesh into eager arms over and over again. In times of drug plenty, prisoners will queue up in cells to mutilate their arms with a single blunt and filthy syringe.

    Finding a vein is paramount. Catching hepatitis C is the least of their worries. ''Everyone here's got it,'' is the prevailing attitude.

    In Victoria, Fulham prison in East Gippsland has the worst reputation for freely available hard drugs. Offenders keen to maintain a hard drug habit will ask and generally be allowed to transfer there. Crims who wish to avoid being exposed to hard drugs, and the dramas they involve, will do their best to be sent elsewhere.

    Offenders imprisoned while on opiate replacement treatment (ORT) programs may continue them in jail. Loddon Prison at Castlemaine had about one in 10 prisoners on ORT last year. The synthetic opiate buprenorphine, dispensed in many jails as a tablet, is popular with prisoners, especially if they want to make money. The tablet is dispensed into the prisoner's mouth; the entrepreneurial crim will try to spit it out more or less intact and save it for selling.

    There is only one way to get bootleg "bupe" in jail and that is after it has been spat out of someone else's mouth.

    One notorious case of extreme determination to get high illustrates the adage ''a little knowledge is a dangerous thing''. Gazza was a desperate individual. But he didn't want to catch any dirty crim disease like hep C by using a scabby, busted-up syringe. He was a reader of sorts and recalled how beat writer and famous junkie William Burroughs wrote about using an eyedropper to inject heroin when syringes were hard to come by.

    So he armed himself with an eyedropper obtained via cleaning the prison medical centre and scored some drugs. He mixed his ''taste'' and sucked it into the eyedropper.

    Then he broke up a disposable razor and hacked open the vein in his arm with the blade, attempting to thrust the eyedropper into the wound against the flood of blood. This incident was all about dashed hopes, rather than Gazza maiming himself or succumbing to loss of blood after hours alone in his cell.

    Sure, Burroughs used an eyedropper, but Gazza had missed the part about attaching a hypodermic needle to the end.

    While Gazza's is surely a case of stupidity to a high degree, it also suggests less harm would come to prisoners were they allowed access to clean syringes.

    On the whole, jailed injecting drug users are not characterised by inordinate intelligence. In a compassionate society, they would fall into the category of people who need protecting from themselves. Prison authorities think jail is all about stopping people doing x or y or z, and especially not facilitating drug-taking. It reflects the ''zero tolerance'' thinking that pre-dated the introduction of methadone programs. That was the '60s, now 40 years in the past.

    Social workers attached to jails complain that such entrenched stubbornness is blocking a great deal of progress in treating inmates with drug problems. Corrections authorities might need to be reminded that 19th-century attitudes to prisons administration have no place today.

    November 19, 2009

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