A PUBLIC HEALTH FAILURE:
FORMER PRISONER AND HIV GROUPS IN COURT SUING THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA FOR FAILING TO PROVIDE EFFECTIVE ACCESS TO PRISON NEEDLE AND SYRINGE PROGRAM
This statement is being re-released (with additional information) due to a rescheduling of the court hearing from December 9, 2019 to March 6, 2020.
The following statement is issued by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Comments can be attributed to Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Director of Research and Advocacy.
March 5, 2020 — A court hearing is being held in Toronto tomorrow about Canada’s “Prison Needle Exchange Program (PNEP).” The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, along with a former prisoner and three other HIV organizations, is suing the federal government over its failure to provide prisoners with easy, confidential, and effective access to needle and syringe programs.
This hearing was originally set to take place last year on December 9, 2019; however, due to unforeseen circumstances it was rescheduled for March 6, 2020.
For more than 25 years, needle and syringe programs have been available in prison systems around the world. Studies of these programs show that they:
- reduce needle-sharing and the risk of HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) infection;
- do not lead to increased drug use or injecting;
- reduce the risk of drug overdoses and other harms to prisoners’ health;
- facilitate referrals of users to drug treatment programs; and
- have not resulted in needles or syringes being used as weapons against staff or other prisoners.
Because of the scarcity of sterile injection equipment in prison, people who inject drugs behind bars are more likely to share and re-use injection equipment than people in the community. This significantly increases their risk of contracting HIV and HCV, illnesses that they will bring with them when they return to their communities. A prison needle and syringe program protects the health and lives of all Canadians. Simply put, prison health is public health.
Spurred to take action by our lawsuit launched in 2012, the Government of Canada began implementing a PNEP in 2018 but this program is fundamentally flawed — violating prisoners’ confidentiality in many ways. Prisoners do not trust it. On February 18, 2020, the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada tabled in Parliament its most recent annual report. The Correctional Investigator himself criticized the program’s implementation, saying that it’s not benefiting prisoners because “[s]ecurity-driven practices and a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug possession and use behind bars severely erodes confidence and limits participation in what should be an exclusively harm reduction and health-focused prison needle exchange program” — resulting in only “a handful of individuals enrolled in the program.” There is no working program in the world that uses this approach, which operates as a very strong barrier to access.
At the same time, the PNEP exists only in a handful of prisons, and remains vulnerable to cancellation. While most major political parties have stated their support for a program, the Conservative Party of Canada has vowed to cancel it if they come into power. The Correctional Service of Canada also has a history of cancelling or failing to meaningfully provide proven harm reduction measures to prisoners. That is why we need a positive decision in court: to ensure that the right to this evidence-based health program is enshrined in law.
Moreover, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers opposes the PNEP and has advocated replacing the program with supervised consumption sites so prisoners have access to sterile equipment only at an approved site. While having more harm reduction options is important, a supervised consumption site cannot replace an effective needle and syringe program in prison. In order for prisoners to access a supervised consumption site in prison, they must trust that they can access it confidentially, without exposing their drug use — a highly stigmatized and criminalized activity — to other prisoners and staff. The logistics of maintaining prisoners’ confidentiality in the context of a supervised consumption site are hard to fathom, whereas an effective prison needle exchange program can be confidential and is already proven to work in prisons.
It is a firmly established principle of human rights law that prisoners have the right to the same standard of health care as is available in the community. We will be arguing tomorrow in court that prisoners have a constitutional right to essential health care that includes an effective prison needle and syringe program. We will also be challenging the government’s refusal to make fundamental changes to the program based on the extensive evidence of what is needed for its successful design and implementation.
To meet its legal obligation to protect the health of people in prison, the government must fix the current PNEP, including by making sure that prisoners have easy, confidential, and effective access to sterile injection equipment, and by introducing the program in every prison.
The court hearing is scheduled for March 6, 2020 will be heard at:
9:00 a.m. Osgoode Hall, 130 Queen Street West, Courtroom No. 5, Toronto, Ontario
Media and public are welcome to attend.
Quotes to be attributed to Steve Simons
Steve Simons is one of the applicants suing the federal government for easy, confidential, and effective access to needle and syringe programs in prison. Steve was incarcerated in federal prison, where he was infected with hepatitis C when a fellow prisoner used his injection equipment without his knowledge.
“When I went to prison, I gave up my right to be with my wife and kids. I gave up my right to drive. I gave up my right to walk the streets freely. But I did not give up my right to healthcare. I should not have been infected with hepatitis C, but I was, despite all my efforts. I am fighting for a prison needle exchange program so others will be able to keep themselves safe from needless infection.”
“Growing up, drugs were never an issue for me. It wasn’t until I was behind bars and unable to get relief from my pain that I turned to injecting drugs. It was the only thing that worked. I was shocked when I saw people injecting themselves with unsafe, used, makeshift needles. They were sharpening the used needles with matchboxes and freely sharing with other prisoners.”
“When people say a prison needle and syringe program is dangerous, I think that’s just stigma against people who use drugs. Needles aren’t weapons and prisoners wouldn’t use them as weapons. Inmates have access to knives, scissors, razor blades, hammers, screwdrivers. The real danger is used, makeshift rigs and needles that are shared between many people and hidden out of sight.”
Click here for a policy brief and a fact sheet dispelling some of the common myths about prison needle and syringe programs.
Click here for the Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, which details issues with how the current PNEP has been implemented.
About the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (www.aidslaw.ca) promotes the human rights of people living with, at risk of, or affected by HIV or AIDS, in Canada and internationally, through research and analysis, litigation and other advocacy, public education, and community mobilization. We have studied prison needle and syringe programs for more than 20 years and are one of the co-applicants in a lawsuit launched against the Correctional Service Canada arguing that the denial of prisoners’ access to this health service is a violation of their constitutional right to security of the person, among other rights.
Emma Riach, Communications and Campaigns Officer
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Telephone: +1 416 595-1666 ext. 236
Mobile: +1 437 985-6544