Prison officers in NSW have threatened to walk off the job if the incoming O’Farrell government introduces a needle exchange program in NSW prisons. The Liberal Party announced on the weekend it would consider implementing a trial prisoner needle exchange program if elected next month.

Harm minimisation advocates welcomed the decision, but the ALP and the union representing prison workers say it would encourage illegal drug use and put jail staff at risk.

“We are strongly opposed to any type of needle exchange program in the prisons,” Matt Brindley, chairman of the Prison Officers Vocational Branch of the PSA, told Crikey. “There would definitely be some type of resistance to it. We’d have to sit down and work it out, but there would be very swift and very strong industrial action.”

John Ryan, CEO of drug policy group Anex, said drug use is already rampant in the state’s prisons.

“It’s illegal to have needles in prison but that doesn’t stop them getting in,” he said. “Sometimes they come in through corrupt staff such as prison officers … Sometimes they come in through visitation and sometimes prisoners themselves bring them in. People will do desperate things like inserting needles in their anus to get them in.”

A 2009 NSW Inmate Health Survey found that 43% of prisoners used illicit drugs in jail. Most — 97% of those who injected themselves with drugs — reported using a shared needle during their last injection, putting them at risk of contracting HIV and other diseases.

Ryan says prisoner needle and syringe programs are running successfully in 12 countries, including Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Germany: “It’s not a crazy idea, it’s a very sensible idea and we just need a bit of courage for its implementation.

“This is about protecting families of prisoners; it’s about protecting everyone’s dollar because virus prevented from being transmitted means less health costs down the track.”

ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope has voiced his support for a needle exchange trial at Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre.

A comprehensive 2004 review of international prisoner needle exchange programs found they had reduced needle sharing, blood-borne disease transmission and needle-stick injuries for prisoners and staff. The review found no instances of needles being used as weapons.

Such evidence hasn’t swayed NSW Corrective Services Minister Phil Costa, who said in a statement that a needle exchange scheme would create a “drug paradise” in the state’s prisons: “Offenders are put in jail for good reason; they are not put in there to have a drug party. The last thing we want to see is our prison population [in] a drug-induced haze.”

Chris Puplick, former chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS, Hepatitis C and Related Diseases, told Crikey Costa is a “gibbering idiot”. “He has been minister for prisons and during that time has not had one single success in terms of doing anything about the drug problem in prisons,” Puplick, a NSW Liberal MP in the 1980s, said.

“What he has done is he has presided over a system in which there are drugs in prison, prisoners share needles and the rates of HIV infection go up. We’d all like to see a situation where there are no drugs in prison but that is not going to happen.”