STATEMENT: Proposed supervised injection site in Alberta’s Drumheller Institution cannot replace a prison-based needle and syringe program

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The following statement is issued by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (“Legal Network”). Comments can be attributed to Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Director of Research and Advocacy.


June 12, 2019 — Drumheller Institution in Alberta is reportedly getting a supervised drug injection site. While we support supervised consumption services in principle, we have serious concerns about whether and how this model will work behind bars. For a prison-based supervised injection site to succeed, prisoners must trust staff and believe that they can access the service confidentially, without exposing their drug use — a highly stigmatized and criminalized activity — to other prisoners and staff. This trust and confidentiality simply does not exist within the current prison environment and the logistics of maintaining prisoners’ confidentiality in the context of a supervised injection site are hard to fathom. In fact, no prison anywhere in the world offers prisoners access to supervised injection rooms for these very reasons.


Supervised injection sites or overdose prevention sites must NOT replace needle and syringe programs in prison. Even if Drumheller Institution gets a supervised injection site, it remains without an effective evidence-based prison needle exchange program (PNEP). While more comprehensive harm reduction measures in prison are a laudable goal, supervised injection or overdose prevention sites should not replace a PNEP (currently operating in only six Canadian prisons), which has been proven to function well behind bars and protect prisoners’ health. The benefits of PNEPs are widely accepted and identified by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and many other international and national agencies and health experts, as an essential health intervention in prison. In over 25 years of operation, there has never been a single reported attack involving equipment from these programs.  An evidence-based prison needle exchange program will improve safety for prisoners, correctional officers and the community. That is why the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, along with a former prisoner and three other HIV organizations, is currently suing the federal government over its failure to provide prisoners with easy, confidential and effective access to needle and syringe programs.


We agree more must be done to prevent fatal overdoses in prison. This should include taking immediate steps to provide all prisoners with direct access to naloxone (e.g. by nasal spray), ensuring access to life-saving medication when needed. We also agree that correctional officers should not be responsible for “operationalizing” PNEPs. PNEPs provide a health service to prisoners that must be run solely by the health care staff; this is how evidence-based PNEPs operate everywhere else in the world. 


The proposed supervised injection site at Drumheller cannot divert us from the pressing need for the Correctional Service of Canada to implement in all of its prisons an evidence-based PNEP capable of providing prisoners with easy, confidential and effective access to sterile injection equipment and all of its benefits.






Background: evidence from established Prison Needle Exchange Programs worldwide

  • PNEPs do not lead to increased injection drug use.
  • Needle-sharing practices decrease in prisons where PNEPs are offered.
  • Referrals to drug treatment programs increase in prisons where PNEPs are offered.
  • Health care interventions related to injection-site abscesses decrease in prisons where PNEPs are offered.
  • The number of overdose-related health care interventions and deaths decrease in prisons where PNEPs are offered.
  • PNEP syringes/needles are not used as weapons.
  • PNEPs do not result in increased altercations, whether between prisoners or by prisoners against prison staff.
  • PNEPs do not result in increased cases of needle-stick injuries.
  • PNEPs do not result in increased seizures of illegal drugs or drug-using paraphernalia.
  • PNEPs do not result in increased cases of drug use.
  • PNEPs do not result in increased injection drug use initiation during incarceration.
  • In prisons operating PNEPs, staff attitudes and readiness to accept PNEPs shifted from fear and resentment to acknowledgement that PNEPs are an important and necessary addition to a range of harm reduction services and health and safety interventions.




Emma Riach, Communications and Campaigns Officer

Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

Telephone: +1 416 595-1666 ext. 236