Ideology over safety in prisons

Needle-exchange program would save lives: group

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Prisons can be breeding grounds for diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV, but they don't have to be, advocates for prisoners say.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/07/2015 (2625 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prisons can be breeding grounds for diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV, but they don’t have to be, advocates for prisoners say.

The Harper government has said no to the idea of needle exchanges in federal prisons such as Stony Mountain Institution, and it has failed to fund education programs for inmates offered by organizations such as the John Howard Society.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has estimated the prevalence of hepatitis C in the prison population at anywhere from 20 per cent to 40 per cent. The Correctional Service of Canada said as of 2013, the prevalence among the inmate population was 17 per cent.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society in Winnipeg, says a zero-tolerance policy on illegal drugs is putting inmates at risk.

“A number of studies have reported that the inmate population engages in risk behaviours that place them at greater risk of hepatitis C infection than that observed in the general population,” the health agency says in a bulletin on its website.

John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society in Winnipeg, said the government isn’t doing enough to reduce the spread of hepatitis C among inmates.

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, Spain and Germany, Canada does not have a needle-exchange program in its prisons and jails, he said.

The feds even shut down a pilot project at Stony Mountain a half-dozen years ago that allowed for tattoo needles to be sterilized, Hutton recalled. The attitude was “not on our dime,” he said.

“Here’s a group of Canadians whose health is not being protected — when it easily could be — for ideological (reasons), not for economic or for operational reasons,” Hutton said of the government’s stance. “Frankly, it’s shameful.”

A Manitoba inquest several years ago into the deaths of three prisoners who died of methadone overdoses was told 80 per cent of inmates at Stony Mountain had an addiction.

Carol Dupasquier, a registered nurse at Mount Carmel Clinic, said she has treated patients who say they’ve contracted hepatitis C in prison.

“It is certainly a problem,” she said.

Dupasquier said there is “no question” needle exchanges in prisons would cut down on the number of people she sees with the virus.

“Having harm reduction in general is quite important in all settings for the prevention of hepatitis C,” she said.

Patricia Bacon, who heads an organization in Whitehorse that provides support and counselling on hepatitis C and HIV, said it doesn’t do any good for prison administrators and governments to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

“In a perfect world, if you don’t provide equipment it means you don’t have illicit drug use in the prison system, but that’s a naive view,” she said. “So what you have instead is sharing of drug-related equipment in the jail.”

The risk of spreading the hepatitis C virus through sharing needles when injecting drugs is very high, Bacon said.

“If we want to make an important difference in Canada about new transmissions of hepatitis C, what we really need to do is get our heads wrapped around the idea of providing comprehensive harm-reduction programs in the prison environment,” she said. “That is a conversation that we should be having, but we’re reluctant to have it.”

‘Here’s a group of Canadians whose health is not being protected… Frankly, it’s shameful’

— John Howard Society’s John Hutton

A spokeswoman for the Correctional Service of Canada said Ottawa is not considering the introduction of a needle-exchange program, as it would run counter to its zero-tolerance policy on illegal drugs in institutions.

“CSC is committed to preventing, controlling and managing infectious disease in correctional facilities to protect the health and safety of staff, inmates, and ultimately the community,” Esther Mailhot wrote in an email.

She said federal inmates are offered screening upon admission for infectious diseases, including hepatitis C and HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

The correctional service provides “education on admission” to inmates on blood-borne diseases, as well as access to trained peer support workers, and access to substance-abuse programs, Mailhot said.

Manitoba government spokeswoman Rachel Morgan said needles and syringes are rarely found in contraband searches in provincial jails.

“Staff do not recall any syringe discovered as contraband for several years, despite a strong detection program and a records review (last) week confirms certainly not in the last six months,” she wrote in an email.

“If, in fact, there is far more injected drug use in the jails, the need for harm reduction from needle infection among inmates must be balanced with the need for safety for all inmates and correctional officers, which could be compromised by the introduction of sharps and bleach,” Morgan said.

Hutton maintained needle-exchange programs can be carried out safely.

To carry out exchanges, needles must be displayed in a stand in sight of corrections officers, he said.

“It’s actually safer to do that for correctional staff than to have them searching a cell, for example, and maybe encountering a needle hidden under a mattress,” he said.

larry.kusch@freeprees.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

History

Updated on Monday, July 27, 2015 8:00 AM CDT: Fixed related items.

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