Prison tattoo parlours get the axe

The Conservative government is cutting a safe-tattoo program for federal prisoners, despite concerns the move will increase the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C.

The Conservative government has axed a controversial program that allowed inmates to safely get tattoos in federal prisons.

The pilot program was designed to curb the rapid spread of HIV and hepatitis C among Canadian inmates. Tattoo parlours with sterileneedles were set up at six prisons for a one-year trial period that ended Sept. 30.

Theproject cost $600,000 to operate. Start-up costs totalled $350,000.

"Our government will not spend taxpayers' money on providing tattoos for convicted criminals," Stockwell Day, federal public safety minister, said Monday.

"Our priority is to have an effective federal corrections system that protects Canadians, while providing inmates with access to acceptable health care and treatment programs."

He said the government will continue with other programsaimed at curbing HIV and hepatitis C in prisons, including educational programs that teachinmates about tattoo risks.

Endingprogram will lead to spread of diseases: opponents

But critics saidcancelling the safe parlours will increase the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, which is already occurring in prisons at an alarming rate.

Inmates are up to 10 times more likely to contract HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, than the general Canadian population. Their likelihood of contracting hepatitis C isabout30 times higher.

"This is a fairly irresponsible move by the government," said Richard Elliott, deputy director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. "It's pretty disappointing."

Elliott told CBC News Online that without a safe tattoo program, inmates end up using and sharing un-sterile homemade tattoo equipment. He said there is no statistical data at the moment that shows exactly how many inmates are infected from unsafe tattooing, but the risk is high.

He argues it violates inmates' human rights to deny them access to sterile equipment.

Cutting the program is also a public health risk, he said. Inmates with HIV and hepatitis C put local prison populations at risk. When they re-enter society, they put the general public at risk.

Program pays for itself, activist says

Elliott said the tattoo program could save money in the long run.

He said it costs about $20,000 a year to treat someone with HIV. Hepatitis C treatment costs about $25,000 a year. Meanwhile, the tattoo project costs about $100,000 to run at each prison, he said.

"If you prevent just five cases, the program has paid for itself," he said.

Others are applauding the government's decision.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation said the tattoo project was a waste of taxpayers' money. The federation estimated the annual cost to taxpayers to expand the project to all 58 federal prisons would be $5.8 million, plus $2.6 million in start up costs.

When the program was initially launched, the union representing Canadian correctional officers spoke out against it. Union representatives argued that inmates would get a hold of tattoo needles and use them as weapons.

The union alsoworried inmates would use the tattoos to display their membership in prison gangs.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that can attack the liver and can be fatal. One of the most common methods of transmission is through unsafe tattoo equipment.

With files from the Canadian Press