Used needles are shown at a needle exchange in Miami, May 6, 2019. Barring drug-using federal prisoners from access to clean syringes puts them at risk for serious diseases and violates their rights, an Ontario court is set to hear. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Lynne Sladky

Used needles are shown at a needle exchange in Miami, May 6, 2019. Barring drug-using federal prisoners from access to clean syringes puts them at risk for serious diseases and violates their rights, an Ontario court is set to hear. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Lynne Sladky

Barring Canadian inmates access to clean needles unconstitutional: activists

Statistics suggest Indigenous and female inmates are most at risk

Barring drug-using federal prisoners from access to clean syringes puts them at risk for serious diseases and violates their rights, an Ontario court is set to hear.

For two days starting Monday, prison and other activists are expected to make the case that Ottawa’s rules and policies around needles in prisons are unconstitutional.

“The absolute prohibition on sterile injection equipment is arbitrary, overbroad and grossly disproportionate,” the applicants say in their filings in Superior Court.

“Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to infringement of their (constitutional) rights because the government has total control over every aspect of their daily lives, including their access to health care.”

The case was initially launched in 2012 by Steven Simons, who was imprisoned from 1998 to 2010. Court documents show Simons became infected with the hepatitis C virus and was potentially exposed to HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, while behind bars. He says another prisoner used his injection materials, and that they had no access to sterile equipment.

The problem, the applicants say, is that prison authorities regard syringes as contraband, making inmates found with them subject to punishment. The tough approach comes despite mounting evidence that in-prison access to sterile needles helps prevent the spread of serious illnesses.

“The sharing of drug-injection equipment poses a high risk for transmitting blood-borne infections,” the applicants state.

“The prevalence of HIV and (hepatitis C) among Canadian prisoners, including those in federal penitentiaries, is significantly higher than among the population as a whole.”

Activists note that more than 90 per cent of prisoners are eventually released. Like Simons, some will have become infected with serious illnesses from sharing needles and syringes behind bars.

“Correctional authorities’ refusal to ensure access to sterile injection equipment inside prisons not only jeopardizes the health and lives of prisoners, it also contributes to a public health problem beyond prisons.”

Statistics suggest Indigenous and female inmates are most at risk, making Ottawa’s approach discriminatory, the applicants say.

In recognition of the problem, the federal government recently began a pilot needle-exchange program in which inmates are given access to sterile equipment. However, The pilot has only been implemented in half a dozen of Canada’s 43 federal prisons, according to court filings.

One intervener in the case, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says the response is not enough given that widespread drug use is an acknowledged fact of prison life in Canada.

“As the vast majority of prisoners have no access to safe injection equipment, those who use drugs have no choice but to inject them in unsafe ways,” the association says in its factum.

Correctional Service of Canada has long tried to keep drugs out of prisons, but recognizes that contraband inevitably finds its way to inmates.

Prison guards oppose making needles available to inmates, citing the risk of accidental or intentional injury. However, their union says in-prison safe injection sites, in which inmates get access to needles for use in a supervised setting with nursing staff, are preferential to needle-exchange programs that offer injection kits for in-cell use.

The court is expected to hear that other countries offer needle and syringe programs with positive health benefits. It’s also expected to hear from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network about the drug situation in prisons.

ALSO READ: Pamela Anderson asks Trudeau to serve inmates vegan meals

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
A judge has found an Edmonton woman guilty of manslaughter in the death of her five-year-old daughter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of 5-year-old girl

The woman was charged and pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and assault with weapons, including a belt and a spatula

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Alberta identifies 2,042 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Jason Kenney urges federal government to push U.S. for surplus COVID-19 vaccines

‘It makes no sense for our neighbours and regional states to be sitting on doses that we cannot use,’ the premier said

Alberta reported an additional 1,980 cases of COVID-19 Friday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer adds 37th death from COVID-19, active cases drop

Alberta Health identified an additional 1,980 cases of the virus province-wide

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman travelling from Alberta found dead in B.C. park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel’s approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

Wolf density in Jasper is low enough that the animals would not be expected to be a major threat

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman’s restaurant is located in the tiny community of Field, which relies on tourism

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Mom’s Diner’s Facebook page)

Most Read