Four heroin-addicted inmates in British Columbia jails have launched a charter challenge to gain opiate addiction treatment, arguing they deserve the same health care they could access in the community.

The group contends that B.C. Corrections' policies unconstitutionally block them from being prescribed methadone or suboxone if they don't meet specific criteria.

"What I know about addiction is people have insight into their condition and they're ready to ask for help when they're ready to change," said their lawyer Adrienne Smith.

Smith filed a notice of civil claim and an application for an injunction in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday.

"There's a fantastic opportunity there and Corrections is squandering that opportunity for no good reason," she said. "There ought not to be barriers in the way of people who are ready to change."

The inmates, Brian Cooper, Shawn Gillam, Nikola Skupnik and Troy Underhill, are all men in their late 20s and early 30s. They are in provincial custody either awaiting sentencing or remand.

Two are incarcerated in a Kamloops facility and the others are being held in Prince George and Port Coquitlam.

Conflicting statements

All four have sworn in affidavits they were told they required a three-month or greater sentence to be prescribed the opiate replacement drugs. They each allege the time has passed yet they've been denied access to a doctor, Smith said. Their claims conflict with a statement from the B.C. government, which says there is no minimum time or length of custodial sentence to start treatment.

"To be clear, upon admission to a correctional centre, medical staff can refer an inmate for either methadone or suboxone treatment, or an inmate can request it," said a statement from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.

"A physician then assesses the inmate and develops an individualized care plan, regardless of the length of the inmate's sentence." The ministry said no one was available for an interview and no comment would be made while the case is before the courts

Filed internal complaints

Chiron Health Services, a private health provider also named in the suit, referred request for comment back to the ministry. Smith said her clients were referred to her by Prisoners' Legal Services, which advocated for the inmates after they allege they filed internal complaints with B.C. Corrections that have never been addressed.

Smith is scheduled to argue on March 31 for an injunction that would give her clients immediate access to a doctor to determine whether treatment is appropriate before a trial. She's hopeful the issue can be resolved before then.

"I would like my clients to stay alive so they can have their day in court." Smith said she will argue that opiate replacement drugs prevent illicit drug use behind bars and help prevent inmates from starting to reuse upon release.

She said there have been overdoses in B.C. institutions, where addicts inject contraband drugs without sterile syringes or take dangerous portions. Her clients also fear they might take drugs with the deadly contaminate fentanyl, she said, which is up to 100 times more toxic than morphine.

Smith estimated that replacement drugs would cost an estimated $4,000 annually, but the price is $60,000 to treat someone who contracts hepatitis C or $14,000 to treat a case of HIV. "We know there is a base cost to prescribe medication, but the savings to the public are enormous in comparison."