The Network, joined by former inmate Steven Simons and several other advocacy organizations, is suing the federal government in a bid to ensure everybody behind bars has access to a confidential and safe needle program.
Without that access, they say inmates will continue to face significant risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis C.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to, current and former inmates, want to preserve and protect this program because it’s a way to protect their health,” says Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of research and advocacy with the Network.
And while people lose some rights when they’re put in prison, they don’t give up their right to healthcare.
Still, the Network faces a tough battle convincing the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which remains staunchly opposed to the program.
“It’s introducing needles into the cells and that increases the risk for corrections officers doing searches,” says Jeff Wilkins, the union’s national president.
“It increases the risk for potential threats, of (using) needles as a weapon.”
A spokesperson for Correctional Service Canada (CSC) says there have been zero safety incidents in the nine prisons that currently have a prison needle exchange program.
Wilkins says the union would prefer CSC focus on expanding other harm reduction measures like safe consumption sites.
Last June, CSC opened the first prison overdose prevention site in the country at Drumheller Institution in Alberta. At the time, Wilkins told Global News that “the resources should be put into keeping drugs out of prison.” Now, he says, the prevention site is preferable to the needle exchange program.
Inmates have used the Drumheller site more than 700 times since it opened and there have been zero overdoses, Wilkins says, while overdoses continue at the nine federal institutions that currently have the needle exchange program.
“The reality that we’re looking at is the most safe and reasonable option,” he says. “To us the most safe and reasonable option is the overdose prevention site.”
But the way the needle exchange program is currently set up makes it so that “prisoners do not trust it,” per a Legal Network statement.
“Drug use in prison is very much stigmatized,” Chu says. “It’s penalized too, so being outed as someone who uses drugs has repercussions for your sentence itself and any access you have to programming.”
Those are issues the Office of the Correctional Investigator raised last month in its annual report. The investigators surveyed inmates and found 30 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men incarcerated reported a lifetime of injection drug use. Among the men, the number who reported having HIV and hepatitis C was “significantly elevated.”
The idea behind the needle exchange program, which was first launched at two institutions nearly two years ago, was to help cut down on the spread of those types of infectious diseases.
And yet, the correctional investigator’s report says, “elements of the program appear confusing or even contradictory.” For instance, even though select inmates receive the kit to safely inject, they must sign a document saying they understand they will still face discipline if caught with the drugs for which they use the kit to safely inject.
Furthermore, the report notes that low levels of participation could be attributed to the fact that at the program’s launch in June 2018, an inmate’s participation was considered “relevant to release decision-making” by the Parole Board.
Ultimately, Simons, the former inmate at the centre of the lawsuit, says this is about health. He says he never had any issues with drugs until he was “behind bars and unable to get relief from my pain.” He was infected with hepatitis C while in prison.
“I was shocked when I saw people injecting themselves with unsafe, used, makeshift needles. They were sharpening the used needles with matchboxes and freely sharing with other prisoners,” Simons is quoted as saying in a release.
Chu says some of the union’s concerns about safety are disingenuous, since inmates already have access to needles for Epi-pens and diabetes. Nobody has documented any instance of those being used as weapons, she says.
A spokesperson for CSC says, “there are effective protocols in place to safely manage” insulin injections and Epi-pens.
Needles for insulin and Epi-pens aren’t the same, Wilkins says, because they use a different type of syringe so “it’s very difficult to jerry rig and once you use the needle it goes back in.”
But in the release, Simons said he thinks “that’s just stigma against people who use drugs.
“Inmates have access to knives, scissors, razor blades, hammers, screwdrivers. The real danger is used, makeshift rigs and needles that are shared between many people and hidden out of sight.”
A spokesperson for CSC declined to comment on the specifics of the legal challenge given its still before the courts. However, she said at the current pace, the needle exchange program will be fully implemented by 2021.
Friday’s Ontario Superior Court of Justice hearing is being held in Toronto.