HIV spreading rapidly in prisons, study says

Health Canada study says HIV, Hepatitis C, spreading in prisons, mainly due to drug use

A new report says H-I-V and Hepatitis-C are spreading at an alarming rate in Canadian prisons and little is being done to stop it.

Health Canada released the 90-page report Wednesday.

It says the number of known cases of HIV in the federal prison system has risen by at least 35 per cent in the past five years.

Positive HIV tests across the country dropped 30 per cent drop in the same period.

Rates of Hepatitis C are now as much as 100 times higher than in the outside community.

Dirty needles

The report blames sharing of needles by addicted inmates for most of the increase.

Johnny Bodz, an inmate at Kent Institution, a maximum security prison in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, agrees.

Bodz is addicted to heroin and has AIDS and Hepatitis C.

But like thousands of inmates across Canada, being sick with AIDS has not prevented Bodz from using drugs, sharing needles and possibly spreading disease.

"In here you may have 20, 30, 40 guys sharing one needle and that's scary," says.

The study looked at harm reduction measures in federal, provincial and territorial prisons.

They included:

  • access to condoms
  • access to bleach or sterilized needles
  • needle exchanges
  • use of methadone, a drug used to treat heroin addicts.
The study rated British Columbia highest, with a B. The federal government came second with a B minus, while Newfoundland and Labrador received a D.

The rest all got failing grades.

But Correctional Services Canada insists it is doing a good job.

"We have taken very significant steps in the last year about this issue," said Dr. Francoise Bouchard. "We are providing bleach, condoms to all inmates, we have now the methadone treatment program that has been expanded to all our institutions."

Three years ago a committee set up by federal corrections recommended needle exchanges in prisons but the idea was rejected.

Ralf Jurgens of the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, says government officials are reluctant to set up needle exchanges because they don't want to appear to be condoning drug use.

But he said studies undertaken in other prison systems where those measures have been tried show they don't lead to increased drug use.

He says the problem won't stay behind prison walls.

"We have to realize if we protect prisoners we protect all Canadians," he said.