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Watchdog abandons campaign for needle exchange in prisons

Studies have suggested a needle-exchange program would help reduce the spread of infectious diseases in Canada's prisons.

john woods The Globe and Mail

Canada's corrections watchdog is giving up on his push for needle-exchange sites in prisons, saying the government isn't interested in the evidence supporting the program and is focused on its own zero-tolerance strategy.

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers said several Canadian studies have suggested the program would help reduce the spread of infectious diseases in prisons.

But he said he's now looking for alternative ways to improve prisoners' health.

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"The government has made it clear that they will not be introducing any prison-based needle exchanges in Canadian penitentiaries," Mr. Sapers said Tuesday, following a parliamentary committee meeting about drugs in prisons. "At some point, you move on."

The Correctional Service of Canada offers other harm-reduction tools to prisoners, including condoms, dental dams and bleach for contraband needles. It also provides methadone treatment to help wean heroin addicts off the drug.

Mr. Sapers said the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Correctional Service of Canada's health care advisory committee have both suggested needle-exchange programs could further reduce the spread of disease in prisons.

"I think it's safe to say that there's consensus that a needle exchange has positive health outcomes. I think where there is difficulty is how to integrate a needle exchange into a correctional environment that is trying to achieve zero tolerance on contraband drug use," he said.

Russ Toller, deputy commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada's transformation and renewal team, told the committee his department can't keep its prisons drug-free.

"Zero tolerance, of course, is exactly where we're at. Unfortunately, there are still methods and ways people get [drugs]in," he said.

HIV/AIDS rates are 10 times higher in prisons than in the general population, while hepatitis C rates are 30 times higher, Mr. Toller added.

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Candice Hoeppner, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, said she supports efforts to keep drugs out of prisons and believes it's not clear that a needle-exchange program would be beneficial.

She said the committee has heard from counsellors, inmates and corrections workers who have advised against the program. "There was certainly not a consensus at all."

Earlier this fall, the committee heard from a retired corrections officer who expressed concern the needles could be used as weapons and create new security problems in prisons.

Mr. Sapers first called for a needle-exchange program to be introduced in prisons in 2004.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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