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Inmate access to clean needles draws debate in B.C.

The difficulty of obtaining needles in prison leads users to share them, putting themselves at risk of blood-borne illnesses, prisoners advocates say.

The availability of illicit drugs in B.C. prisons underscores the need for needle exchanges to curb the transmission of blood-borne illnesses behind bars, civil-liberties advocates say, but correctional staff are strongly opposed to the idea, arguing that the increased availability of clean needles could do more harm than good.

Marijuana is the most commonly seized intoxicant from federal prisons in British Columbia, with 225 seizures from eight sites between January, 2010, and June of this year, according to records obtained by The Globe and Mail under freedom of information legislation.

Next follows seizures of 137 "unknown" intoxicants, then 133 seizures of heroin.

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The most commonly seized drug paraphernalia was syringes, with 177 seizures from the eight sites.

The difficulty of obtaining needles in prison leads users to share them, putting themselves at risk of blood-borne illnesses, prisoners advocates say.

A Correctional Service Canada survey of inmates in federal penitentiaries, released in 2010, found 34 per cent of men and 25 per cent women admitted to using non-injection drugs in the previous six months in prison, while 17 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women admitting using injection drugs.

Laura Track, a lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), says the group's position is that drug users in prison have a legal right to sterile supplies.

"People should not be given a death sentence simply because they're in prison and don't have the same community harm-reduction supplies that exist outside of prison," she said.

"That is a well-established legal principle. This sounds to many people like a really radical proposition but, in fact, it is clear in the law that prisoners have the right to the same quality of health care as is available outside prison."

Drugs and drug paraphernalia are most often smuggled into prisons in the body cavities of prisoners and their visitors, prison officials say.

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Correctional officers are not authorized to order cavity searches.

Prison officials have also seen drugs be stuffed into tennis balls and thrown over prison walls and, in recent years, dropped off by drones.

Jason Godin, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, has been working in corrections for 25 years and says the availability of drugs behind bars has "always been a major problem."

He is also troubled by the relatively recent emergence of illicit fentanyl in street drugs – staff have had a few exposures to it in British Columbia, he says – but maintains that needle exchanges are not the answer.

"In a prison setting, [a needle exchange] is dangerous and virtually impossible to control," he said.

"Certainly, that's one thing that we're completely opposed to. We've had incidents where inmates have been able to get their hands on a needle and have attacked correctional officers."

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Dean Purdy, a spokesman for the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, which represents correctional staff at provincial prisons, feels similarly.

"Having needles inside and readily available to inmates is a concern for us, because of being exposed to the dangers that go with that," he said. "We try to keep any drugs and contraband outside of the jail. Safety is number one and we don't want to see anything like that inside of the jails."

Some prison systems, including the federal Correctional Service Canada, will make available bleach for inmates to disinfect injecting equipment. However, the Canadian HIV/AIDS legal network noted in a 2015 policy brief that some prisoners are reticent to engage in any activity that increases the risk of alerting prison staff to their drug use. As well, prisoners may not spend long enough cleaning their needles to effectively disinfect them, the policy brief stated.

The BCCLA will be intervening in a constitutional challenge brought by Steven Simons, a former prisoner who contracted Hepatitis C while imprisoned, set to go to trial next year.

Mr. Simons says Correctional Service Canada's failure to make sterile injection equipment available violates prisoners' constitutional rights.

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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