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Federal penitentiaries in Canada will soon offer clean needles to inmates who are likely to inject drugs while behind bars, answering a decades-long call by harm-reduction advocates who say the overdue initiative prevents the transmission of blood-borne illnesses and to withhold it would be in violation of Charter rights.

However, the union representing Canada’s correctional officers says the move condones illicit drug use and allowing prisoners to possess needles puts officers in danger.

The prison needle-exchange program will begin in June at two prisons: the maximum security Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., and Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., according to an internal memo sent to Correctional Service Canada (CSC) employees. Best practices learned at these two locations will inform a national rollout in January, 2019.

Sandra Ka Hon Chu is director of research and advocacy at the Canadian HIV and AIDS Legal Network, which in 2012 teamed up with other harm-reduction groups to launch a constitutional challenge against the Canadian government for failing to make sterile injection equipment available to prisoners.

Ms. Chu said on Monday that she was pleased to learn of the announcement, but that it’s long overdue and “we’ll believe it when we see it.”

“Every day that they continue to deny prisoners access to sterile injection equipment, people are getting needlessly infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, and their Charter rights are being violated,” Ms. Chu said. “I hope that this program actually materializes.”

Jason Godin, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, has long been opposed to such an initiative and said on Monday that he was “baffled” by the move, which he said condones drug use in prison facilities.

“What’s very concerning is that the whole goal as part of the rehabilitation process is to try to get these individuals to become law-abiding citizens and wean them off the drugs that usually got them into prison to begin with,” Mr. Godin said.

Mr. Godin said there is uncertainty regarding the expectations of correctional officers, as well as safety concerns. “We obviously know the guy’s going to be using drugs now, so do we stand outside and try to confiscate drugs off the guy?” he said. “In which case, he now has a weapon and doesn’t like us taking his drugs.”

CSC will use a “threat assessment model” to determine which offenders can participate in the program, said Stephanie Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the service. An inmate must submit an application form and have it approved by Health Services to participate. As well, an inmate can only receive a clean needle after returning one to Health Services. Illicit drug use is still prohibited and other contraband will be seized by officers.

Ms. Chu said the requirement for inmates to disclose their drug use to Health Services to access sterile supplies will impede access to the service.

Ms. Stevenson said the needle-exchange program is modelled after other safe-needle programs already in place – such as for inmates who require Epipens for allergic reactions and insulin needles for diabetes – and that the service has “gained experience managing inmates using needles in a safe and secure manner.”

Ms. Stevenson cited literature the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime that found prison needle-exchange programs are not associated with increased attacks on prison staff or inmates.