Prison report urges needle exchange programs

A report on drug use in prisons urges the federal government to set up needle exchange programs for inmates.

A report on drug use in prisons urges the federal government to set up needle exchange programs for inmates.

Rates of HIV and hepatitis C infections in prison are 10 to 20 times higher than in the general population, says the report to be released Tuesday by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

"Because of the scarcity of needles and syringes in prison, people who inject drugs are more likely to share injecting equipment than people in the community," the report said. "This significantly increases their risk of contracting HIV and HCV."

The report noted that as of 2009, prison needle and syringe programs have been introduced in more than 60 prisons of varying sizes in at least 10 countries in Europe and Asia, producing positive results and few problems.

"In spite of the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of (the programs), at this time no Canadian prison permits the distribution of clean needles," the report said. "This harms the health of people in prison, given the increasing presence of HIV and (hepatitis C) behind bars.

"This also creates a further risk to public health more broadly [because] the vast majority of people who spend time in prison return to their families and communities."

The network's purpose is to promote the human rights of people living with, or vulnerable to, HIV/AIDs.

"We’re not evil people, we’re people’s daughters, we’re people’s mothers, we’re just people wanting help," Karen Dooks, who contracted both HIV and hepatitis C in prison, told CBC News. "If they had a needle exchange, there'd be a lot less sickness — it would work, that's all I know, it would work."

To bolster its case for needle exchange programs, the HIV/AIDS Legal Network spent 2008 and 2009 interviewing and gathering testimonials from 50 people who had spent time in jail to find out "what do people in prison have to say about the Canadian government's unwillingness to address the problem?"

Testimonials strengthen message

The group said it hopes the testimonials, which form the bulk of the report, will help bring about a change in government policy.

"They describe first hand how the denial of clean needles in prison has contributed to the harm they have experienced, why (needle programs) are critical to protect their health and what they think a prison system can and should do if truly committed to people's health," the report said.

"The hope is that their stories will strengthen the case for change, which governments continue to ignore even as a growing body of evidence highlights the need."

Greg Simmons, who sold and used drugs during his 20 years in prison, told CBC News his supply came from visitors, guards, volunteers and staff. Now clean and working in a Toronto youth centre, Simmons said the prison environment pushes many people into using drugs.

"It’s a breeding ground for addiction … the loneliness," he said. "I’ve seen people literally cut themselves and get their vein open and pour it in there without a syringe, that’s how desperate, wanting to kill the pain."

Dooks spent four years in prison for more than 500 break-ins, all to support her habit.

"I remember using a needle that was so bent and dirty, but you don’t care," she said.

Both Simmons and Dooks said the millions being spent by the federal government to try to keep drugs out of prisons would be better spent helping inmates who are addicted.

Sandra Chu, senior policy analyst for the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said previous reports on the problem have concentrated on laws, policies and public health issues, but the organization felt a different approach was needed.

"What we thought was really missing was the voices of the people directly affected, the formerly or currently incarcerated people," she said. "So we thought this report would really humanize them."

With files from Maureen Brosnahan