The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
Sadly, it’s easy – and mostly cost-free politically – to pay little heed to the living conditions of incarcerated criminals in this country. The bureaucratic and legislative wheels consequently grind slowly when it comes to reform – look no further than the federal bill to restrict the use of solitary confinement, which remains stalled in Parliament.
So it’s good to know that two Canadian prisons will experiment this summer with needle-exchange programs for intravenous drug users. A national roll-out is set for 2019.
That decision merits plaudits; the timidity and foot-dragging leading up to it do not.
Experts have urged Correctional Service Canada to adopt such measures for the better part of two decades, and Ottawa has paid for at least two evaluations of needle-exchange programs in other prison systems.
They exist in several countries, including Switzerland, Spain and Germany. In some cases, they have been in place since the 1980s.
The research tells us everything we need to know about the idea: that it prevents the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis; that there is no appreciable increase in drug use; and that the needles are not turned into deadly weapons.
Offering prisoners a chance at rehabilitation means helping them deal with their problems as they are, not as we wish them to be. The tell is in the argument that needle exchanges will exacerbate the problem of illegal drugs in prisons, not create it. We all know the drugs are there.
But prohibition has failed behind bars, as it tends to everywhere else. Harm reduction works, even if it is anathema to tough-on-crime politicians and correctional officers’ unions.
No one is advocating for the open use of injectable drugs behind bars, but those who can’t get by without them should have their dependency treated as an illness, not a crime.
That’s the mindset that makes it possible to cure what ails our prisons. The new needle-exchange programs are a good move.