Ottawa sued over ‘failure’ to provide needle-exchange programs in prisons
Published Tuesday, September 25, 2012 10:55AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, September 25, 2012 10:48PM EDT
A former prisoner and several advocacy groups are suing the federal government over its "failure" to provide needle-exchange programs in prisons.
The lawsuit was launched Tuesday by Steven Simons, a former inmate who contracted hepatitis C while in prison, as well as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network, CATIE and the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network.
The lawsuit alleges the federal government is guilty of a “failure to protect the health of people in prison through its ongoing refusal to implement clean needle and syringe programs.”
Simons, who was an inmate at Ontario’s Warkworth Institution from 1998 to 2010, was infected with hepatitis C after a fellow prisoner borrowed his drug injection equipment.
If a needle-exchange program had been in place, Simons says, he wouldn’t have had to use homemade, shared equipment and likely wouldn’t have become infected.
“When I was in prison, I would see people passing one homemade needle around and sharpening it with matchbooks. The needle would be dirty and held together with hot glue,” Simons said in a statement.
He added that his motivation is to ensure that other drug-addicted prisoners aren’t forced into the same scenario. In fact, the suit does not seek monetary compensation, but rather a court injunction that would require Ottawa to launch needle-exchange programs in prisons across the country.
The lawsuit is to be filed Tuesday in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice. It claims prisoners are entitled to a needle exchange program under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is named in the suit, wouldn’t specifically comment on the case since it’s before the courts, but he reiterated the government’s “zero tolerance policy for drugs in our institutions," in the House of Commons Tuesday.
"That is why we made a commitment during the last election to develop drug-free prisons. Drug use among prisoners dramatically reduces their chances of successful rehabilitation,” he said.
Communities across Canada already have needle-exchange programs in place for the regular population.
Currently, no prison in Canada offers a needle-exchange program, but Sandra Ka Hon Chu, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said other countries have launched successful programs in their prisons and Canada could easily follow suit.
Switzerland has had a needle-exchange program in its jails since the early 1990s and countries that followed include Spain and Moldova, Chu said.
“The international evidence shows that, in those countries where these programs exist, drug use does not increase, drug injection does not increase and risk behaviours actually decline,” she told CTV News Channel.
She added that there hasn’t been “a single incident where a prison guard was stabbed or attacked” by a needle provided to an inmate for safe injection.
According to the groups filing the lawsuit, HIV rates are 10 times higher within the prison population and hepatitis C rates are 30 times higher, and prisoners are much more likely to share and reuse injection equipment.
Attorney General Rob Nicholson and Don Head, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada are also specifically named in the lawsuit.