Correctional Services Canada (CSC) announced this week they will be launching a needle-exchange program at two federal penitentiaries this June, with plans for a national roll-out beginning next year. This decision has both critics and proponents. Numerous harm reduction organizations have been calling for clean needles for prisoners for years, while the union representing correctional officers say it condones illicit drug use and endangers officers.
Harm Reduction organizations like the Canadian HIV and AIDS Legal Network joined forces to launch a constitutional challenge against the Canadian government in 2012 over this issue. Director of research and advocacy, Sandra Ka Hon Chu, said that CSC is violating prisoners’ Charter Rights by denying them access to sterile injection equipment and allowing the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. HIV rates of incarcerated people are 6 times higher than the national average. People who use injection drugs while incarcerated will use regardless if there are clean needles. Therefore, CSC is not encouraging the use of drugs by implementing a needle-exchange program, but making both the users and other prisoners and staff safer by preventing the spread of disease.
The president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said he was “baffled” by the announcement which he believes condones drug use within prison walls, and puts weapons in the hands of inmates. However, this needle-exchange program is being modeled after other programs that are already in place and are doing well. Prisoners who have Epipens or who are insulin dependent already use needles onsite and a spokesperson for the CSC said this has also prepared guards for how a safe needle exchange would work. The CSC also looked at research from the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime that showed needle-exchange programs like the one suggested are not associated with increased attacks on staff or prisoners. Next month Canada Drug Rehab will be doing a profile on harm reduction in Canada where you can learn more about this approach to drug policy.
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