Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use


Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform has a close interest in the existence, capacity, operation and public accountability of any new ACT prison.

This is because between 70 and 80 per cent of inmates are gaoled for drug related offences and are themselves drug users.

We believe that any prison serving the ACT should:

Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform believes that fundamental issues regarding an ACT prison have not been addressed and should be before the project proceeds.

The unaddressed fundamental issues are that:

The case for expanded prison facilities has not been made out

It must be recognised that prisons are now serving as a principal if misguided element of Australia’s and the ACT’s official drug strategy. This is abundantly clear from the make-up of the prison population. As mentioned, some 70 to 80 per cent of prisoners are drug users who are incarcerated for drug related offences like robbery and stealing undertaken to support a drug habit.

Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform oppose the current situation in which prisons are a core element of the community’s response to the health issue of drug addiction. Our position is that this approach is inherently misguided, inhumane and counter productive.

It is therefore essential that any expansion of prison capacity be viewed in the context of drug policy.

The evidence is available that if medically supervised prescription of heroin were introduced as one of the available treatments, an overall fall in offences of some 68% could be expected by users on that program. For offences particularly associated with the drug lifestyle such as burglary, muggings, robbery, pick-pocketing and drug trafficking the reduction is likely to be in the region of 90%.

These findings are referred to in the attached paper by Martin Killias, Marcelo Aebi and Denis Ribeaud, "Summary of Research Findings concerning the Effects of Heroin Prescription on Crime" (March 1999).

The paper suggests that these reductions flowing from the heroin maintenance programme translate into significant crime reductions across the board in cities where the programme operates. Thus ". . . street robberies (a crime typically committed by drug-addicts) have dropped in Zurich (City and Canton) by about 70 percent between 1993 and 1996".

The Committee should therefore recognise that the adoption of effective drug policies would mean that not only would there be no need for additional prison space to house ACT prisoners but that substantially less than the present capacity would be required. This would allow the ACT to lower its commendably low incarceration rate of 49 per 100,000 mentioned in the Government’s discussion paper.

Such an outcome would have major budgetary savings as well as social benefits.

Even if policies leading to such attractive outcomes are not introduced, there still remains a need to consider the effect on demand of any proposed expanded policy of diversion of drug users from prison such as would occur if the ACT introduced a drug court along the lines that New South Wales is now trialling.

The development of an effective, evidence-based drug treatment strategy should be a condition precedent for the establishment of an ACT prison

Undoubtedly the strategy that would have the most desirable social outcomes and would be most cost effective is to reduce the level of delinquency in the first place. The adoption of a world’s best practice drug strategy holds out that prospect. Unless this is done it will be necessary to face the fact that the overwhelming number of prisoners have drug dependency problems.

Experience to date from virtually all gaols is that:

a) the handling of drug dependent prisoners is a particular problem for prison administration;

b) it has been impossible to exclude drugs from circulating in gaols and that a significant number of prisoners initiate drug use in gaols.

An effective drug treatment strategy based on evidence of what works must therefore be a central element in the planning of an ACT prison and not merely a subsidiary issue to be considered after a decision has been taken to proceed. This is essential not only for the prisoners themselves but to protect the community at large from HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases easily spread among drug using prisoners.

Public health authorities are warning that there is a serious danger of prisons being a breeding ground for an epidemic of these diseases in the general community unless precautions are taken.

In this respect it is essential that any private prison manager engaged by the ACT be required to implement such a drug treatment strategy bearing in mind that privatisation in other Australian jurisdictions has been an inhibiting factor in timely implementation of revised practices.

10 May 1999