Federal government announces prison needle exchange program

By Charlene Tebbutt
May 16, 2018 - 5:00pm

Inmates at federal prisons across the country will soon be able to access clean needles for drug use, a decision that worries corrections officers, even while harm reduction advocates are applauding the news.

The Correctional Service of Canada announced this week that inmates housed in federal prisons will be able to access clean needles for injection drug use through a new needle exchange program. The exchange program will first be initiated at two prisons – one in Ontario and one in New Brunswick – and will be rolled out across all federal institutions beginning in January 2019.

In an emailed statement following the announcement, the CSC says the needle exchange program will only be offered within federal penitentiaries, which houses inmates serving sentences of more than two years. The CSC says the program will be rolled out across Canada as part of the New Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, and will add to harm reduction initiatives already in place.

The new needle exchange program will be in line with other recommended interventions from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, including screening and testing of inmates, education about infectious diseases and prevention, methadone programs, and access to support and substance abuse programming, the CSC added.  

But, the union representing correctional officers in Canada says the new program goes against their mandate, adding there isn’t enough information about how the program will work, and what officers will be expected to do when they see drug use happening.

“The mission statement of the Correctional Service of Canada is to encourage offenders to become law-abiding citizens, and now the government has made a move to condone drug use in our facilities,” Jason Godin, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers told paNOW. “We’re a little bit baffled as to why the government would introduce an operational nightmare for corrections officers to try to institute … the logic that CSC is trying to put into place is ridiculous.”

Godin says the union will continue to challenge the new program, adding that officers have a right to refuse work they feel is dangerous.

“I think harm reduction strategies are useful in a regular society,” Godin added. “It’s not a normal community for us, and it’s unfortunate that people who are advocating for harm reduction strategies don’t realize it’s not a normal community.”

Rebecca Jesseman, director of policy at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addictions, says needle exchange programs are a valuable tool when it comes to preventing injuries and the spread of infectious diseases. More than 80 per cent of offenders entering into the federal corrections system have a history of substance abuse issues, Jesseman said.   

“Unfortunately, we have not yet invented the prison that can keep all drugs out,” Jesseman said.

“We know that the majority of offenders who come into Canada’s prison system do bring histories of problematic substance abuse, and we know that they’re going into an environment that is very stressful and traumatic and can be violent as well, so that’s not very conducive to recovering from substance abuse.”

In its statement, the CSC said the needle exchange program will build on efforts to manage infectious diseases within correctional facilities, and may help lower the number of needles that are shared amongst users. Information from other countries with needle exchange programs show they do not lead to more violent incidents on correctional officers and even contribute to workplace safety, the SCS said. The CSC already makes needles available to inmates with health issues, such as diabetes. 

 

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On Twitter: @CharleneTebbutt

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