25 september 2012
Lawsuit seeks safe needle exchange for Canadian prisoners
The application claims the government is failing to protect the health of prisoners by not providing access to the same kind of needle and syringe exchange programs that have been offered to drug users in communities across Canada for more than 20 years.
A former prisoner and several AIDS prevention groups are suing the Canadian government for not providing needle exchange programs in federal prisons. This kind of program exists in several western countries and activists say it’s time Canada offer it as well.
HIV and hepatitis C rates are 10 to 30 times higher in prison than in the rest of Canadian society. Especially hard hit are women and aboriginal inmates. The government’s own officials have recommended setting up a needle and syringe exchange program in prisons but the current conservative government has steadfastly refused.
RCI’s Lynn Desjardins
spoke with Sandra Ka Hon Chu
, a lawyer and senior policy analyst for the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network
and a lawyer who will argue the case, Douglas Elliott.
Steven Simons is a plaintiff in this suit. He is a former inmate who was infected with hepatitis C when another prisoner used his drug injection equipment. He said, while inside, he saw fellow inmates passing one dirty homemade needle around. He watched them shove a dull needle into their skin creating craters, abscesses and disfigurement. Now he wants the government to set up a needle exchange program in prison to save lives and to prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV.
The Canadian government has steadfastly refused to create such a program. The prisons do provide inmates with bleach to clean injection equipment but Ms. Chu says that is ineffective. “There’s (sic) numerous international studies that show that bleach is not effective to kill hepatitis C. It might be effective to kill HIV if done in a certain manner but it’s very time-consuming and studies have also shown that people don’t actually do it the right way in prison especially because they’re fearful of being caught in the process of doing something illegal. So in essence, bleach is not effective in killing HIV or hepatitis C.”
The plaintiffs want the judge to order the Canadian government to provide a needle and syringe program in penitentiaries across the country. “We believe that this case engages the right to life, liberty and security of the person under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” says the lawyer who will argue the case, Douglas Elliott. “The availability of clean needles and syringes in the community means that this is now really a health service that’s available to Canadians outside of the prison setting and therefore the government has a legal obligation to make it available to prisoners.”
'Prison health is public health'
Public health is also at risk if prisoners are not provided clean injection equipment, in the view of Mr. Elliott. “About 90% of people serve their sentence and return to the community. So the fact that the government is failing to control the terrible levels of hepatitis C and HIV in our prisons is creating a problem for public health in communities across Canada when these people are released.”
The plaintiffs say the case is so important they are willing to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary. “People don’t surrender their human rights when they enter prison,” says Ms. Chu. “I think many people feel that (if) people have done something wrong they deserve whatever they get in the prison system. But they’re dependent on those who are charged with their care to uphold their human rights and this includes their right to health. I really want to underscore the fact that prison health is public health.”
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