British Columbia

Needle exchanges coming to 2 Canadian prisons

Inmates at two federal prisons who use injection drugs will have access to clean syringes beginning in June, with the Correctional Service of Canada planning to roll out the service at other institutions next year.

Corrections Canada will begin 1st phase of its needle exchange program in June

Harm-reduction advocates say the needle exchange program is long overdue, but prison guards say they are wondering what happened to the correctional service's zero-tolerance policy on drugs. (CBC)

Inmates at two federal prisons who use injection drugs will have access to clean syringes beginning in June, with the Correctional Service of Canada planning to roll out the service at other institutions next year.

The correctional service has previously made needles available for inmates with diabetes who require insulin and for people needing EpiPens, but this is the first time drug users in Canadian prisons will have access to clean needles.

"Correctional Service Canada's prison needle exchange program is an initiative that will strengthen ongoing efforts to address infectious diseases in federal penitentiaries and in our communities," said interim commissioner Anne Kelly in a written statement on Monday.

Phase 1 of the needle exchange program will begin with one men's institution, the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., as well as one women's facility, the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont.

A correctional service spokesperson said the prisons were selected because they have the highest rates of injection drug use and needle sharing, based on routinely gathered health information.

According to the service, HIV rates in prison are 200 times higher than in the general population, and hepatitis C rates are 260 times higher. For both diseases, the rate within prisons has decreased considerably in the past 10 years.

Long overdue, advocate says

The announcement was welcomed by harm reduction advocates on Monday.

Sandra Ka Hon Chu is director of research and advocacy with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. She said the plan to make clean needles available in two institutions is a positive step, but that it should have come two decades ago.

The organization is one of five groups and individuals that launched a lawsuit against the correctional service in 2012. Chu claims the lack of clean injection equipment is a denial of prisoners' rights to health.

"It's been over five years [since the lawsuit was launched] and I think this is sort of the tragedy — in that five-plus years, numerous people have been infected with HIV and hepatitis C," she said.

According to Chu, prisoners who use injection drugs go to great lengths to create and share makeshift syringes, sometimes made out of things like pens..

"It's quite terrible," she said. "I've heard stories from prisoners using one needle that's been used by 30 or 40, up to 50 people, just shared because there's so little access."

Chu said she's concerned about the needle exchange model the correctional service is planning to use, which requires inmates to return a needle to get a new one. She said there should be a diversity of needle distribution models, and making prisoners hand in a syringe to obtain a clean one reduces overall access. 

Prison guards object

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said in a written statement that it is concerned about the launch of the needle exchange programs in two prisons, which it claims are being implemented without new training or safety measures for correctional officers.

"This program represents a dangerous turning point. Correctional Service Canada has decided to close its eyes to drug trafficking in our institutions. It has chosen to encourage criminal activity inside the walls instead of investing in the care and treatment of inmates who are drug addicts or carriers of infectious disease," union president Jason Godin said.

"We are also wondering what's happening with CSC's zero-tolerance policy on drugs?"

Godin expressed confusion about the role of correctional officers who witness inmates using the needles to inject contraband drugs, and whether they're expected to intervene, or permit drug use.

He also claimed the new program will be a threat to officers and put inmates' lives at risk with the risk of overdose, and that the correctional service's role should be to continue to reduce the supply of drugs.

According to the correctional service, "The safety and security of staff, the public and inmates are of utmost importance when making decisions about CSC programs and policy."

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Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at