Election 2015: Prisoners’ right to health — Canada’s major federal parties respond

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts being published by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network ahead of Election Day on October 19, 2015.

Recently, we sent a questionnaire to the five major federal parties, asking their position on key questions related to HIV and human rights. Four out of five parties responded. Their responses are shared here, along with our comments. See www.aidslaw.ca/election2015 for more information.

October 9, 2015

Across Canada, publicly funded needle and syringe programs help prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C (HCV). But these programs do not exist inside Canadian prisons — even though the federal government’s own research shows that drugs get into prisons despite efforts to block them, and that many people in prison struggle with addiction and inject drugs, including by sharing makeshift injection equipment.

In Canada, the prevalence of HIV and HCV infection among people in prison is at least 10 and 30 times higher, respectively, than in the overall population. If implemented, prison needle and syringe programs (PNSPs) would give people in prison access to the same health services available outside prisons, and also make workplaces safer for prison staff by reducing the likelihood of accidental injuries via non-sterile injection equipment shared by many people.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of PNSPs around the world, no Canadian prison currently permits the distribution of sterile injection equipment to prisoners. This continuing failure of Canada’s lawmakers and prison authorities undermines the health of prisoners, violates human rights and leads to significant, avoidable costs of treating HIV and HCV infections that could have been prevented. Because most people in prison eventually return to the community, the health of prisoners is also a broader public health concern.

We asked the major political parties whether they would support the implementation of PNSPs in Canada’s federal prisons.

All four parties that responded were in favour of harm reduction programs, with varying degrees of clear commitment.

  • The New Democratic Party explicitly stated its support: “New Democrats believe that harm reduction does not stop at the prison gate. And protecting the health and lives of prisoners, prison staff and, in the longer term, the public-at-large by eliminating the transfer of infectious diseases is a question of harm reduction and should be dealt with as such. In this respect, all the proven, scientifically-based benefits of needle and syringe programs apply inside prisons as much as in the community. An NDP government will support the implementation of such programs. Denying these programs constitutes a needless risk to human health and is bad public policy.”
  • The Bloc Québécois also explicitly supported PNSPs, stating simply: “The Bloc Québécois supports the idea of needle exchanges in Canada’s federal prisons.”
  • The Green Party was also direct and unequivocal in its support: “Yes. Harm reduction practices work — and they are desperately needed in our increasingly overcrowded prisons. Prisoners’ rights are human rights. Prisoners do not forfeit their right to health care just because they have committed a crime. In fact, their unique needs and risk factors for addiction and other health challenges warrant specialized health services, including prison needle and syringe programs in Canada’s federal prisons.” (The Green Party also shared its criticism of mandatory minimum prison sentences, poor prison conditions such as over-crowding and solitary confinement, and other ideas for improving correctional policy.) 
  • The Liberal Party stated that “[w]e recognize that there is compelling evidence to support needle and syringe programs (NSP) in prisons,” and adding that “any changes must rely on evidence to demonstrate that [harm reduction programs] are necessary to ensure Canadians’ safety.” The Liberal Party promised to “carefully review statements by groups like the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network that the Conservative government is violating the rights of inmates under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by failing to provide prison needle and syringe programs inside prisons.”

The Conservative Party of Canada did not respond to the questionnaire.

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