In an eyebrow-raising harm reduction move, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is offering a heroin substitute to prisoners about to be released to help them wean themselves back onto drugs on the streets. Prisoners who have a history of drug addiction and who tell prison doctors they are likely to return to using heroin are being prescribed methadone in an effort to reduce the growing number of overdose deaths among freshly released ex-cons, the Scotsman newspaper reported last week.
While some politicians expressed outrage, the prison service shrugged off the criticisms. A spokeswoman for SPS explained: "There are issues surrounding prisoners overdosing when they are released, so in certain circumstances we are offering them a retox program where they can take methadone if they are likely to re-abuse when their sentence is up," she said. "The program is not specific to any particular prisons. In order for a prisoner to be allowed onto the program, the individual's circumstances must be thoroughly assessed and if deemed appropriate, the retox program can be offered to them before they leave jail."
According to the Scotsman, the program has been quietly underway for the last three months, is available in every Scottish prison, and is tailored to the individual needs of prisoners. Under the plan, prisoners thought likely to return to drug use on the street are assessed by psychologists and drug counselors. If the medical staff believes there is a strong possibility of renewed heroin use, prisoners are offered a place in the program. Participation is voluntary.
"This is still a relatively new program," said the SPS spokeswoman, "and it is still in its infancy, so we can't measure its success for awhile. What we do know is that 85% of people received in Scottish prisons test positive for drugs, and prisoners are continuing to overdose when they are released. We realize that combating drugs is a difficult thing to do and we have to take a radical and realistic approach to this issue," she added.
While SPS appears to have little problem thinking outside the box, the plan has boggled the minds of drug fighters. "This is an astonishing development and it has a huge element of defeatism attached to it," said Scottish National Party justice spokeswoman Roseanna Cunningham. "When it comes to drugs, we shouldn't allow ourselves to be defeated on any level. There is certainly a problem when prisoners with drug problems are released back into society, and overdoses are a serious issue," she conceded. "But instead of issuing prisoners with drugs, surely our resources should be going into follow-up care so that when inmates are released they are not abandoned. This seems to be an admission that the existing rehabilitation programs within our prisons just aren't working," she told the Scotsman.
Conservative Party justice spokesman Lord James Douglas Hamilton also expressed his disbelief. "The message we give is hardline and we firmly believe that drug users, whether prisoners or not, should be weaned off their addiction with all possible speed," he said. "[The Scottish Executive] appears to have hoisted the white flag here instead of giving a strong and unequivocal message to potential drug addicts, which should be simply 'don't take drugs.'"
Just in case his message wasn't clear, Hamilton added: "There has been a prolonged debate on this, but this is the wrong emphasis. The SPS should be taking a much tougher line and adopting our policy of zero tolerance," he told the Scotsman.
But one anti-drug campaigner, Alistair Ramsey of Scots Against Drugs, said the program should be given a chance. "I'm sure the public will react very badly to this, but it's got to be seen as part of the bigger picture. The dilemma the prison service has is that people leaving prison often overdose and die because they have lost their tolerance to their drug of choice," he told the Scotsman. "We are entering a period in Scotland where we will need to be innovative when grappling with the realities that drugs bring to our communities."