May 17, 2018 6:06 pm

Corrections Canada to introduce needle exchange program at 2 federal prisons

WATCH: Starting next month, correctional service Canada will provide clean needles for intravenous drug users at two of its prisons. The country’s prison watchdog has been pushing for it for more than a decade. But as Morganne Campbell reports, those on the front lines say the move puts them at risk.

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Guards at two federal prison say they’re dealing with a new workplace hazard, called “sharps.” But you may know them better as needles.

“The sharps in the institutions are a big concern – not because they’re sharp. but because they’re contaminated,” says Jeff Wilkins, regional president for the Atlantic Region Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

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Next month, Corrections Canada will introduce a needle exchange program at the Atlantic Institution in New Brunswick and Grand Valley Institution for Women in Ontario. The needles will be given to inmates who use injection drugs and pass a risk assessment test.

“This program is part of a suite of existing harm reduction initiatives, including access to bleach, which are recommended by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes. Evidence from countries where Prison Needle Exchange Programs operate indicates that a prison needle exchange program can reduce the need to share illicit needles and ultimately reduce the spread of infectious disease,” explains Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) spokesperson Stephanie Stevenson, in an email statement. 

The move was recommended 14 years ago by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, an arms-length agency that scrutinizes CSC policies, practices and acts as an advocate for inmates.

“My office would never recommend something that would endanger the safety and security of staff, ” says Dr. Ivan Zinger, the current investigator.

“I think the government of Canada should be congratulated for implementing safe needle exchange program in penitentiaries.”

READ MORE: ‘There are reports and then there’s reality’: Union responds to Correctional Investigator’s ‘concerned’ annual report

Atlantic Institution is one the country’s prisons with the highest rates of injection drug use and needle sharing.

“At the end of the day, if it saves lives. If it saves transmission, to me, it’s a good thing,” says MP Pat Finnigan, who represents Miramichi-Grand Lake.

The union representing front-line staff is taking issue with the move. There’s concern the needles could be used as a weapon and potentially spread an infectious disease.

If that happens, the officer has to take what’s referred to as “the cocktail,” a series of medications that wipe their immune system.

“It’s very detrimental to the correctional officer. They can’t have physical contact with their spouse. I know in speaking with some correctional officers that have been on the cocktail, they’re afraid to kiss their children goodnight,” explains Wilkins.

Corrections Canada says the program’s goal is solely to reduce the need for inmates to share needles, and in turn reduce the spread of infectious disease.

he program will be available at institutions across the country in January 2019.

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