Ottawashould reconsider a pilot project that provided prisoners with a safe way to obtain tattoos because suchparlours in prisonscould help to stop the spread of infectious disease, says an AIDS activist.

Leon Mar, spokesperson for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, told CBC News on Wednesday that the prison tattoo pilot project should be reinstated.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day shut the program down in December.

"Canadian taxpayers are either going to pay now or they are going to pay later," Mar said.

"We either pay now to make sure that HIV and hepatitis C are not spread throughout the prison system or we are going to have to pay to treat these people once they are already infected."

Mar made the comments after an interview with Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, was published online Wednesday in an article set to appear in the January issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Butler-Jones said in the article that the federal government did not give the project enough time to show whether it was able to affect the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Butler-Jones said "a relatively short space of time," such as the one year given to the project, is not long enough to demonstrate conclusively whetherit could limit the rate of infection among prisoners.

Minister stands by cancellation of program

Responding to the criticism, Day issued a short statement to CBC.ca on Thursday afternoon.

"Canada's new government will not spend taxpayers' money on providing tattoos for convicted criminals," he said.

"We believe that taxpayers' money should be put where it counts most. That means tackling crime and keeping drugs off our streets."

Day's statement added:"We will continue to support effective programs that educate inmates on the health risks of using dirty needles."

The $600,000 tattoo project was rolled out in August 2005 as part of an $85-million federal AIDS initiative. The Public Health Agency is in charge of the initiative. Under the project, an inmate was trained to provide sterile tattoos to prisoners while staff supervised.

Tattoo parlours with sterile needles were set up at six prisons for a one-year trial period that ended last September.

Advice, not criticism

In an interview with the Canadian Press on Wednesday, Butler-Jones said he was not criticizing the government in his comments. "It's really not appropriate for me to criticize an individual or community or a government based on its decision. My job is to make sure they have the best advice possible," he said.

But Butler-Jones said in the article he was not consulted before the project was shut down. He told the CMAJ that such a program could fit with a general federal strategy to reduce the spread of infectious diseases in prisons.

Day said in December that the government closed the project because it did not want to spend money on providing convicted criminals with tattoos, although he said it would continue to provide inmates with access to health care, treatment and educational programs about tattoo risks.

An estimated 45 per cent of prisoners get tattoos while in prison, while 17 per cent have body piercing done.

Public health officials have been concerned about the use of dirty needles in prisons because they can spread infectious diseases.

According to the CMAJ article, Corrections Canada said 3,300 male and female inmates in Canada's 54 prisons had hepatitis C in 2004, with a prevalence rate of 25 per cent, and more than 2,400hepatitis Cpositive inmates were released into the community that year. As well, about 180 prisoners were infected with HIV in 2004.

Corrections Canada estimates the annual cost of treatment to be $29,000 for an inmate with HIV and $26,000 for an inmate with hepatitis C.

The CMAJ article said Day has declined to release an assessment of the project done by Corrections Canada's audit branch because it is still being translated.

Mar said he agrees that the project should have been given a chance and he has said that such programs should be implemented in all prisons in Canada.

"We are very glad that the chief public health officer of this country has seen fit to speak out on this issue," he said. "The minister hasn't clearly explained his reasons for cancelling the program."

The network, which advocates on legal and human rights issues raised by HIV/AIDS, says Canadians in prison are seven to 10 times more likely to be infected with HIV than peopleoutside prison.

With files from the Canadian Press