Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Portugal considers safe drug-taking rooms in prisons

AFP , LISBON

Portugal is under pressure to set up heroin injection rooms in its overcrowded prisons, where widespread drug use is leading to rising rates of HIV infection amongst the nation's 14,000 inmates.

Nearly one in two Portuguese prisoners regularly gets high and of those who do, 26.8 percent use injecting drugs like heroin, according to a government report released last month.

More worryingly, the report into the state of the nation's prisons concluded that more than three-quarters of those who use injecting drugs behind bars share their needles, creating the ideal environment for the spread of the HIV virus.

Fully 14 percent of Portuguese prisoners are infected with the HIV virus while 396 prisoners have full-blown AIDS, the report compiled by the office of Portugal's justice ombudsman said.

The prevalence of HIV/AIDS, along with other communicable diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis, helped give Portugal the highest rate of prisoner deaths in the EU last year.

There were 60 deaths for every 10,000 inmates in Portugal last year, compared to just 20 in neighboring Spain.

To slow the spread of HIV in jails and improve this grim record, the prison report recommended the government set up injection rooms in prisons where inmates would be provided with clean needles and a place to shoot up in a supervised setting.

Similar programs were first set up in Switzerland, amidst much controversy, and have since been put in place in Spain and Germany.

The aim of such programs is to reduce the harm that illegal drugs cause to the users themselves as well as to society as a whole, a philosophy known as "harm reduction."

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