OTTAWA – The federal prison service plans to introduce needle exchange programs in a bid to reduce the incidence of infectious diseases among inmates.
The move, which comes after years of pressure from prisoners and health advocates, was quickly denounced by the union representing prison guards.
The Correctional Service says the program will be unfurled initially at one men’s and one women’s institution, and the lessons learned will inform a full national roll-out.
The initiative will give federal inmates access to clean needles in an effort to limit the transmission of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis C and HIV, the prison service said in its announcement.
Costs of the program will come from existing budgets.
From 2007 to 2017, the prevalence of hepatitis C in prison declined to 7.8 per cent from 31.6 per cent, while HIV dropped to 1.2 per cent from just over two per cent, according to federal statistics.
However, these diseases are still far more widespread behind bars than among the general public.
The current approach to prevent and control blood-borne and sexually transmitted infections includes screening, testing, education, substance-abuse programs and treatment.
A 2017 Correctional Service memo, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, advised Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale that the idea of a needle program warranted consideration.
It said a program to provide clean drug-injection needles to prisoners could reduce the spread of hepatitis C by 18 per cent a year.
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has long argued for needle-exchange programs in Canadian prisons, and applauded the planned program as a sign the federal government “recognizes the solid and mounting international evidence” about the effectiveness of needle programs in preventing needless infections.
However, Correctional Service officials have raised concerns about syringe needles being used as weapons.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said the proposed new program “represents a dangerous turning point” and accused the prison service of closing its eyes to drug trafficking in prisons.
The initiative “poses a real threat for correctional officers and will put the lives of many inmates at risk,” the union added.
In its announcement, the Correctional Service said the safety and security of staff, the public and inmates are of utmost importance.