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Goodale hints prison needle programs could be changed

Federal prison guards are flagging health and safety concerns in pushing for changes to planned needle exchange programs in penitentiaries. The Matsqui Institution, a medium-security federal men's prison, is seen in Abbotsford, B.C., on Thursday October 26, 2017.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
November 28, 2018 - 11:30 AM

OTTAWA - Prison needle-exchange programs that guards say will endanger their health and safety could get another look with an eye to changes, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale signalled Tuesday.

The federal prison service has already set up needle programs at institutions in Ontario and New Brunswick in a bid to reduce the incidence of infectious diseases among inmates.

The initiative, to be rolled out to all federal prisons beginning in January, gives inmates access to clean needles in an effort to limit the transmission of hepatitis C and HIV.

Jason Godin, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says the plan clashes with the longstanding principle of a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and makes prisons more dangerous for the people who work in them.

Allowing inmates to use needles in their cells will considerably increase risks for guards, who might be injured or infected by needle-sticks, the union says. It notes that in similar programs in some European countries, injecting is not permitted in cells, only in centres supervised by health professionals.

"We're trying to get the government to look at other options that might be available," Godin said Tuesday in an interview. "We're not in favour of the program, but at the same time if they're going down that road, we want it to be implemented in the safest possible way."

Goodale told the House of Commons public-safety committee Tuesday he had a very good discussion with Godin last week and wants the union to have "the absolute confidence" its work is respected.

"It is critically important work and it is tough work," Goodale said. "I want to make sure that as much as humanly possible we respond to the legitimate representations of the UCCO."

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for the minister, later said that while the structure of the needle program could be changed, the government remains committed to its implementation across the correctional system.

Godin questioned the need for the needle program given that rates of infectious disease in prison have been going down.

From 2007 to 2017, the prevalence of hepatitis C in prison declined to 7.8 per cent from 31.6 per cent, while HIV dropped to 1.2 per cent from just over two per cent, according to federal statistics.

However, these diseases are still far more widespread behind bars than outside.

Godin said the union was not consulted on the needle-exchange plans, nor has it seen results from the initial programs at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., and Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.

Correctional Service spokeswoman Stephanie Stevenson said officials are "in the early days of identifying lessons learned from the two sites."

For years the effort to prevent and control blood-borne and sexually transmitted infections in prison has included screening, testing, education, substance-abuse programs and treatment.

Last year an internal Correctional Service memo advised Goodale the idea of a needle program warranted consideration. It said a program to provide clean drug-injection needles to prisoners could reduce the spread of hepatitis C by 18 per cent a year.

Earlier this year the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network applauded the planned program as a sign the federal government recognizes evidence that needle exchanges are effective.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2018
The Canadian Press

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