Used needles are shown at a needle exchange in Miami, May 6, 2019. Barring drug-using federal prisoners from access to clean syringes puts them at risk for serious diseases and violates their rights, an Ontario court is set to hear. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Lynne Sladky

Barring Canadian inmates access to clean needles unconstitutional: activists

Statistics suggest Indigenous and female inmates are most at risk

Barring drug-using federal prisoners from access to clean syringes puts them at risk for serious diseases and violates their rights, an Ontario court is set to hear.

For two days starting Monday, prison and other activists are expected to make the case that Ottawa’s rules and policies around needles in prisons are unconstitutional.

“The absolute prohibition on sterile injection equipment is arbitrary, overbroad and grossly disproportionate,” the applicants say in their filings in Superior Court.

“Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to infringement of their (constitutional) rights because the government has total control over every aspect of their daily lives, including their access to health care.”

The case was initially launched in 2012 by Steven Simons, who was imprisoned from 1998 to 2010. Court documents show Simons became infected with the hepatitis C virus and was potentially exposed to HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, while behind bars. He says another prisoner used his injection materials, and that they had no access to sterile equipment.

The problem, the applicants say, is that prison authorities regard syringes as contraband, making inmates found with them subject to punishment. The tough approach comes despite mounting evidence that in-prison access to sterile needles helps prevent the spread of serious illnesses.

“The sharing of drug-injection equipment poses a high risk for transmitting blood-borne infections,” the applicants state.

“The prevalence of HIV and (hepatitis C) among Canadian prisoners, including those in federal penitentiaries, is significantly higher than among the population as a whole.”

Activists note that more than 90 per cent of prisoners are eventually released. Like Simons, some will have become infected with serious illnesses from sharing needles and syringes behind bars.

“Correctional authorities’ refusal to ensure access to sterile injection equipment inside prisons not only jeopardizes the health and lives of prisoners, it also contributes to a public health problem beyond prisons.”

Statistics suggest Indigenous and female inmates are most at risk, making Ottawa’s approach discriminatory, the applicants say.

In recognition of the problem, the federal government recently began a pilot needle-exchange program in which inmates are given access to sterile equipment. However, The pilot has only been implemented in half a dozen of Canada’s 43 federal prisons, according to court filings.

One intervener in the case, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says the response is not enough given that widespread drug use is an acknowledged fact of prison life in Canada.

“As the vast majority of prisoners have no access to safe injection equipment, those who use drugs have no choice but to inject them in unsafe ways,” the association says in its factum.

Correctional Service of Canada has long tried to keep drugs out of prisons, but recognizes that contraband inevitably finds its way to inmates.

Prison guards oppose making needles available to inmates, citing the risk of accidental or intentional injury. However, their union says in-prison safe injection sites, in which inmates get access to needles for use in a supervised setting with nursing staff, are preferential to needle-exchange programs that offer injection kits for in-cell use.

The court is expected to hear that other countries offer needle and syringe programs with positive health benefits. It’s also expected to hear from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network about the drug situation in prisons.

ALSO READ: Pamela Anderson asks Trudeau to serve inmates vegan meals

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Fruitvale product new ambassador for Blue Jays Care Foundation

Fruitvale native Ella Matteucci led off Jays Care Foundation with a few Twitter tips on staying fit

A second wave of COVID-19 is probable, if history tells us anything

B.C.’s top doctor says that what health officials have learned this round will guide response in future

Fact: B.C. bats don’t carry or spread COVID

BC Annual Bat Count goes this summer, citizens encouraged to take part

Mountain Pineapple defers application for new cannabis store in Rossland

The application was originally going to be reviewed by city council on May 19

LIVE: Procession to honour Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey comes to Halifax

Snowbirds service member died in a crash in Kamloops one week ago

RCMP facing ‘systemic sustainability challenges’ due to provincial policing role

Provinces, territories and municipalities pay anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of the cost of the RCMP’s services

One man dead after standoff with Chilliwack RCMP

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the RCMP’s role in the death

B.C. employers worry about safety, cash flow, second wave in COVID-19 restart

A survey found 75 per cent of businesses worry about attracting customers

Ex-BC Greens leader Andrew Weaver says province came close to early election

Disagreement centred on the LNG Canada project in northern B.C.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money

B.C. premier says lessons to learn from past racism during response to pandemic

B.C. formally apologized in the legislature chamber in 2008 for its role in the Komagata Maru tragedy

Snowbirds to remain at Kamloops Airport indefinitely after fatal crash

small contingent of the Snowbirds team is staying in Kamloops, acting as stewards of the jets

Oak Bay man stumbles upon eagle hunting seal, grabs camera just in time

The eagle did ‘a perfect butterfly stroke to shore’ with its prey, photographer says

Most Read