Western Australian Labor leader Mark McGowan announced on Sunday, his party’s “radical” new plan to tackle the state’s “meth crisis.” The plan includes the establishment of two dedicated drug and alcohol rehabilitation prisons.
The announcement of the Methamphetamine Action Plan comes ahead of the March state election.
The “statewide, coordinated and targeted strategy” also includes two new treatment facilities in regional WA, an additional $2 million per year to be invested into current treatment facilities, along with increased roadside drug and alcohol testing.
Prison to “kick the habit”
McGowan told reporters, “Rehabilitation prisons is a radical measure, it has never been done in Western Australia.” He also outlined that the state has the highest methamphetamine use in the country with one in 25 people using the drug.
The Labor leader said he envisaged that the prison system will become a new way for people to “kick the habit.”
The prisons will be designed for low-level drug-related offenders serving short sentences. These nonviolent offenders will be held in separate prison units to prevent them from coming into contact with “hardened, long-term prisoners.”
One of the facilities will be established for women and the other for men. Wandoo prison in the Perth suburb of Murdoch currently holds young male prisoners. It would become the women’s drug rehabilitation centre, with a capacity to hold 80 people.
Hakea men’s prison in the southern suburb of Canning Vale has a women’s remand centre. This centre would be reassigned as the male drug rehabilitation prison and would accommodate 256 inmates.
Rehabilitation centres will be established in the state’s South West and Kimberley region. And half the current expenditure on drug and alcohol treatment in prisons will be diverted into post-release drug rehabilitation services and support.
A need for immediate services on the ground
Western Australian Greens upper house candidate Alison Xamon told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® that specialist prisons are a long-term fix in the sense that they would take a long time to set up. And there are more pressing issues to be dealt with.
“There is a disproportionate rate of drug use currently occurring in the prisons, but also that a number of prisoners have alcohol and other drug issues,” Ms Xamon said, adding that drug and alcohol services – along with mental health services – “are absolutely under resourced.”
The WA Greens alcohol and other drug issues spokesperson said that people often want to address their underlying health issues when they enter the prison system but for many this option isn’t available.
According to Ms Xamon, money would be better spent on investing in these programs in existing prisons immediately. She also said that part of the problem is that drug and alcohol services – as well as mental health services – are being run by Corrective Services. But they “need to be delivered as part of the continuum by the Mental Health Commission.”
“I am aware of a number of people in prison who desperately need services and they’re not receiving them or barely receiving them at the moment,” Ms Xamon said. She added that for people who are currently being sentenced for minor drug offences then “prison isn’t necessarily the best first option.”
The Greens’ decriminalisation position
The McGowan plan’s increased investment in treatment and support – along with the focus on education that was also announced – sounds like a welcome approach. But the locking up of people in special prisons for minor drug offences would be a continuation of the major parties’ focus on punitive measures to deal with drugs.
The Australian Greens announced their alternate drug policy in November last year. The new policy acknowledges that that the punitive approach to drugs hasn’t stopped their use. It also recognises that drugs are a health issue and not a criminal one.
Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australian Greens, declared at the time that the war on drugs has failed. The former drug and alcohol clinician was behind their new approach that would see the decriminalisation of illicit drugs and the legalisation of some for recreational use.
Greens party members voted to support the move at their national conference in Perth.
The Portuguese model
Di Natale has previously been on a fact finding visit to Portugal, where they decriminalised the possession of small quantities of all drugs fifteen years ago. Those found in possession of a permissible amount of an illicit substance are sent to “dissuasion panels.”
Since the law came into effect the rate of drug use in the country has fallen, HIV infections have dropped and overdose deaths have decreased.
The Victorian Drug Court
However, alternatives to locking up people for minor drug offences already exist here in Australia. Take the much lauded Victorian Drug Court. It’s an initiative responding “to the failure of traditional criminal justice measures to adequately address drug use and related offending.”
Drug users who have committed nonviolent crimes can opt for an intensive treatment program if they plead guilty. Conditions are attached and if broken, the order can be cancelled which results in prison time.
It’s been shown that people who go before this division of the Magistrates’ Court are 30 percent less likely to reoffend, than others charged with drug-related offences, who are then sentenced to traditional punishments.
There are currently drug courts in most states of Australia, along with the US, the UK and Canada.
AMA calls for needle and syringe programs for prisons
And on the issue of harm reduction for inmates, the Australian Medical Association announced on Monday that it was urging all state governments to initiate needle and syringe programs in correctional facilities.
The association said in its position statement that NSPs would cut down on the spread of blood-borne viruses in prisons, such as hepatitis B and C, and HIV.
AMA president Michael Gannon said that the presence of blood-borne viruses was significantly higher amongst inmates, and Correctives Services were in a position to protect the health of those imprisoned by implementing the initiative.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.