Commons committee hears call for prison needle exchanges
In the wake of the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling allowing Vancouver's safe-injection site to remain open, should needle exchanges be introduced in Canada's prisons?
A senior analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network urged a House of Commons committee Thursday to consider the idea as a way to reduce the rate of HIV and hepatitis C infection among prisoners.
"Prison health is public health. There's no reason to treat prisoners any differently than people in the community who are struggling with addiction," Sandra Ka Hon Chu told members of the standing committee on public safety and national security, which has been holding a series of hearings on how to deal with drugs in federal prisons.
But the suggestion got a testy response from Tory MP Candice Hoeppner, who said the idea "completely ignored" the safety of prison staff. "I have great concern with what seems to me to be a great imbalance towards helping inmates who are addicted to drugs to be able to access more drugs and access paraphernalia to administer those drugs against the safety of officers," she said. "Talk about unrealistic goals. How can you practically say, and try to make us believe, that needles would not be used as weapons against officers?"
Chu said staff safety is important but she pointed out that inmate access to sterile injection equipment has existed in other countries for almost two decades and there have been no cases in which needles were used as weapons.
According to a report released last year by Chu's organization, the presence of HIV in Canada's prisons is at least 10 times greater than in the general population. The presence of hepatitis C is at least 20 times greater.
The report said that needle and syringe programs had been introduced in more than 60 prisons around the world, including in Switzerland, Germany and Spain. "Although people who inject drugs may inject less frequently in prisons, the scarcity of sterile syringes and the punitive consequences of drug use mean prisoners resort to using non-sterile injecting equipment," the report said. "A needle may circulate among large numbers of prisoners who inject drugs, thereby increasing the risk of transmission of HIV and HCV."
Like drugs, needles have been smuggled into prisons, but inmates have also been known to create homemade needles using pens, Q-tips and eye droppers.
Canada's prison ombudsman advocated for needle exchanges in prisons in his 2005-06 annual report. Howard Sapers recommended that the Correctional Service of Canada "immediately implement a prison-based needle exchange to ensure that inmates and society at large are best protected from the spread of infectious diseases."
Last month, Canada's top judges ruled that the government's attempts to shut down North America's only supervised injection site for drug addicts violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The nine judges agreed with studies validating the Vancouver clinic's role in reducing overdose deaths and disease.