Nova Scotia

Non-profits worry N.S. prisoners not receiving best education on HIV, hep C

After Correctional Service Canada switched from hiring organizations on a contract to tendering for bids, non-profits are worried about the education inmates are receiving about blood-borne illnesses.

Advocates for prevention of blood-borne illnesses wonder who's working with inmates

Nova Scotia's two federal prisons, Springhill Institution and Nova Institution for Women, are looking for someone to teach inmates about prevention of blood-borne illnesses. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Advocates for prevention of blood-borne illnesses in Nova Scotia are worried about the potential impact of changes to educating inmates inside federal prisons.

Correctional Service Canada used to hire local organizations on contract to speak to inmates about the risks of HIV and hepatitis C and how to protect themselves.

But that changed a few years ago to a tender process, which non-profits say is discouraging them from applying.

"My guess was they were trying to maybe cut back and get the staff to do more of the work," said Albert McNutt with Northern Healthy Connections, a needle exchange based in Truro.

McNutt said they put in a bid for the tender when the process first changed and were successful.

Albert McNutt says he's worried the changes mean inmates can only look to their health-care team for resources on how to stay safe. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

But instead of giving them time to plan sessions and set up a date in advance, he said the prisons would call the day of — which he said isn't feasible for any small organization.

"I don't know if they think we don't have anything better to do than sit here and wait for them to call," he said.

A new tender for Nova Scotia's prisons was posted on Dec. 28, but McNutt says they won't apply again.

He said he's concerned about where inmates are getting information on how to stay safe and stresses that role shouldn't fall to the health-care teams.

"I don't think it's enough. I don't think they're trained well enough to do it, nor do I think that's part of their mandate. Their mandate there is to provide care for individuals who are incarcerated," he said.

"Any time we went to Nova [Institution for Women], the women keep on saying, 'When are you coming back? When are you coming back? We haven't seen you in a while,' and this type of thing. And I just said, 'It's up to them, they call the shots.'"

Sandra Chu of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network says while the rates of HIV and hepatitis C in prisons have lowered in recent years, they're still a lot higher compared to in the community. (CBC)

Northern Healthy Connections is one of a handful of organizations in the province that deal with education and prevention of blood-borne illnesses.

Another is the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia. Chris Aucoin, prevention educator, said the tender process didn't work for them, either.

"We don't get funded to be on hold to potentially do a workshop in a prison, we get funded to do particular project work, that's the nature of how AIDS/HIV funding happens in this country," Aucoin said.

Info comes from variety of sources: CSC

Correction Services Canada declined to grant an interview.

In an email, spokesperson Julia Scott said information about the prevention of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection is given to inmates from a variety of sources, "including CSC nurses, inmate peers, and via in-service programs."

"Local organizations are best suited to provide inmates contextual information on local support services for when they are released and return to the community," Scott said via email.

"Participation in group and individual workshops and information sessions is voluntary. Sessions are held within health services so that others would not be aware of the reasons for the visit or any underlying diagnosis. Confidentiality is maintained for all sessions."

Needle exchange programs

Aucoin said he doesn't know who has been applying for the tenders, but that education is just one part of the issue.

"The information about how to protect themselves — whether it's with regards to sexual context or IV drug use — is all well and good so long as you have the resources to then apply that," he said.

Two needle exchange programs were piloted at federal prisons in Ontario and New Brunswick last summer. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Sandra Chu, director of research and advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said while the rates of HIV and hepatitis C in prisons have lowered in recent years, they're still a lot higher than in the community.

"People who then might be coming to prison with an addiction, might be using drugs behind bars without the tools they had in the community, like clean needles or access to opioid substitution therapy or counselling," she said.

"I think ultimately it's great that CSC is focusing on education, but I think education without the actual tools to fulfil the best practice in terms of harm reduction will only go so far."

Last summer, two federal prisons in Ontario and New Brunswick set up a trial needle exchange program.

But Chu said they've heard not many people are using it.

"It's subject to a lot of security oversight and your confidentiality is compromised. So people are going to continue to inject drugs and reuse equipment, and that's when you can very effectively pass on hepatitis C and HIV."

Corrections Service Canada said other federal institutions across the country are expected to implement needle exchange programs starting this month.

About the Author

Emma Davie

Reporter

Emma Davie is a reporter, web writer and videojournalist in Halifax. She loves listening to, and telling stories from people in the Maritimes. You can reach her at emma.davie@cbc.ca.