Steve Simons is a former inmate. He joined forces with the Legal Network as a co-applicant in a lawsuit against the Government of Canada over its failure to protect prisoners’ right to health and prevent the spread of HIV and HCV in federal prisons.
I contracted hepatitis C in federal prison. A proper prison needle and syringe program will ensure that others don’t.
For 13 years, I was incarcerated in federal prison. That’s why decision-makers don’t listen to me, but it’s also exactly why they should.
While at Warkworth Institution, I was the inmate health care representative. In this role, I educated myself and others on how to avoid HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) infection.
Fellow prisoners would come to me to learn how to inject drugs safely. Even though prison authorities told us never to reuse or share needles, we were not given clean needles to protect ourselves. I also spoke with senior prison guards who told me they would rather see a needle out in the open than get accidentally poked by one during a routine cell search.
At the time, I was experiencing extreme joint pain from a work accident, so I turned to intravenous drugs for relief. I never shared my injection equipment because I knew the risks. But one day, a fellow prisoner took my kit out of my cell and used it without my knowledge or consent. A few months later, I tested positive for HCV.
This would not have happened if a proper needle and syringe program had been available.
These programs give prisoners access to sterile injection equipment, reducing needle sharing and the associated risks. They make prisons safer for prisoners and guards. They don’t lead to increased drug use. They even reduce drug overdoses, which is vital in the current overdose crisis.
Let me state in the strongest possible terms: prison health is public health. Most prisoners in Canada will return home, bringing any illnesses they’ve contracted in prison with them. A prison needle and syringe program protects all Canadians.
The Government of Canada recently made a good decision to introduce a “Prison Needle Exchange Program” in all federal prisons. To be clear, these programs are not all created equal. The one being rolled out is actually terribly flawed and violates prisoners’ confidentiality in important ways that prevent them from accessing this care.
To get permission to use this health service, a prisoner must first declare their drug use to prison security. No inmate really expects to do this without facing severe consequences. This is a major barrier and no other functioning prison needle and syringe program in the world uses this approach.
To make matters worse, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has been mobilizing against the program. The Union says it’s dangerous and does nothing to reduce harm and the spread of infection. On the surface, their message likely falls on sympathetic ears. No needles in cells? Well, yes, that sounds completely justifiable. But we need to recognize that prisoners are already using needles in their cells and will continue to do so — except these needles are being shared among countless prisoners, ultimately putting health and lives at risk.
What really boils my blood is an argument used by the Union that needles from this program will be used as weapons against guards. Allow me to set the record straight: in the 25+ years that these programs have operated worldwide, this has never once happened. And in terms of guard safety, a needle-prick is surely more dangerous if the needles are used and able to transmit HIV or HCV. Sterile needles keep everyone safer.
My personal experience gives me an important perspective. And the fact that I’m no longer in prison gives me a voice. So I’ve decided to use my voice to partner with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and other organizations to sue the Government of Canada over its failure to protect prisoners’ right to health and prevent the spread of HIV and HCV in federal prisons.
To the Government of Canada: you have a legal obligation to protect and promote health, including the health of people in prisons. You need to fix the current prison needle exchange program and ensure it is rolled out to every federal prison. And you need to be wary of misleading arguments against these programs, which, if successful, will be a devastating loss for prisoners’ health, human rights, and public health.