“A syringe is like currency in a jail,” says ACT union leader Vince McDevitt. “So the idea that you’re just going to let the prisoners wander off down the corridor with this and they’ll just look after it is ridiculous.”

A proposed needle exchange program in ACT prisons (called the Alexander Maconochie Centre) would be the first in Australia — indeed, the first in the English-speaking world. And it has the Community and Public Sector Union brewing for a fight.

The prison proposal, first announced in August this year, has become a point of difference for voters to decide in the territory election this Saturday. Should Labor retain government, the plan means if a prisoner hands in a dirty needle they get a clean one back. The Liberals oppose the scheme.

The architect of the program, ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, has been lauded as a “politician with spine” by public health advocates for her decision to press ahead with the trial. Gallagher said when announcing the new measures: “There are some significant implementation decisions to be sorted out, but I’m not here to warm a seat. I’ve been working on this for years and now is the right time to take the next step.”

The path to a needle and syringe program (or NSP) in Canberra isn’t an easy one. One of the biggest obstacles to the program, in the ACT and in other states, is the prison workers’ union, the CPSU. McDevitt has been a staunch opponent of the trial for some time, saying it will put his members in danger.

“They have a belief that if they facilitate drug taking in the jail by providing the needles they will encounter more drug affected prisoners and more syringes in their workplace,” he said. He gives the example of NSW Goulburn jail prison officer Geoffrey Pearce, who died in 1998 after being stabbed with a needle infected with HIV. “It’s a very real threat, and we think that one death in those circumstances is one too many.”

The ACT government’s contract with the prison guards states no program can go ahead without the approval of the CPSU, making McDevitt’s concerns a big problem for Gallagher’s administration.

The Greens’ health spokeswoman, MLA Amanda Bresnan, says she’s frustrated with the CPSU’s position. “I recognise that they are representing their members, but they actually have a responsibility to give them factual information,” she said. “We know there’s needles in the prison already … and in fact introducing clean needles actually improves their safety.”

Other countries, including Germany, Spain and Switzerland, already have NSPs in their prisons. Bresnan says these are examples of how these initiatives can work. “All the evidence from overseas, from every single prison where they have NSPs, has been that they increase safety for prison staff,” she told Crikey.

The CPSU isn’t Labor’s only problem. Should the Liberal opposition win on October 20, a situation ANU academic John Warhurst considers not unlikely, they have promised there will be no NSP for Canberra. A request for comment from the Liberals did not elicit a response.

There are other less altruistic reasons for introducing a needle exchange program. The Canadian government is being sued by former inmate Steven Simons, who contracted Hepatitis C while serving time in one of their jails. He’s alleging the government ignored multiple calls for an NSP program. In one statement he vividly describes the situation inside the jails: “I would see people passing one homemade needle around and sharpening it with matchbooks. The needle would be dirty and held together with hot glue.”

To date three inmates have been infected with Hepatitis C in Canberra prisons, the most recent in 2011. Some claim the motivation for the proposed ACT trial was concern the government could suffer the same fate as their Canadian counterpart. Bresnan agrees somewhat, but adds the territory also has a human rights obligation. “When you’re incarcerated that’s your punishment, but you should have access to the same sorts of services … that people would in the community. That’s what a human rights compliant prison is meant to do,” she said.

The outcome of the trial has national implications. Drug reform lobby groups say other state governments are watching the ACT very closely. Although none have trialled a similar program, the issue is certainly not off the table. In Tasmania the Corrections Minister is state Greens leader Nick McKim, who has said he will be keeping an eye on the outcome in Canberra. Bresnan says there has been much discussion of a trial program in Tasmania and it could be the next state to take the leap.

Hepatitis Victoria CEO Melanie Eagle says while there has been no mention of a trial, people inside the Department of Justice have told her they will be keeping a close eye on the ACT. As for NSW, in 2011 then-opposition leader Barry O’Farrell proposed a similar program in the run-up to the election; once in government he decided not to go ahead. This was partly due to pressure from the state’s public service union, who recently demanded further assurances that O’Farrell won’t follow the ACT’s lead.

Despite this, Hepatitis NSW executive officer Stuart Loveday isn’t giving up: “[We] have been advocating for a needle exchange program for many years and we will increase our advocacy following the decision taken by the ACT government.”