Making prison needle exchange programs work in Canada – Part 1

This is the first of four unique perspectives on prison needle and syringe programs. It explains why such programs are essential, what is happening in Canadian and international prisons and how such a program can work. All were part of a Canadian Harm Reduction Network panel discussion in support of prisoners’ rights and justice at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Why we need to implement a needle exchange in our prisons

By Julie Thomas

Now more than ever, Canada needs to implement a needle exchange program in our prisons. It’s not because we condone drug use, it’s because we need to reduce the harm of sharing needles for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters and other prisoners.

Prisoners are using – whether we like it or not

In my work with Healing our Nations, I’ve had many discussions with many offenders. I know they say there are no drugs inside – but we know it’s happening.

One of the main reasons for this is that many people use needles for the first time ever when they are incarcerated because they’re bored or want to fit in.

Many inmates share used needles to inject drugs because most prisons lack sterile injection equipment, or safe, confidential access to sterile injection equipment. As a result, people who inject drugs behind bars are more likely to share and re-use injection equipment than people in the community.

Some of the stories I’ve heard

This compounds other health risks in prisons. For instance, many prisoners use and share homemade tattoo guns. They use bleach kits provided in prison to clean syringes to clean their tattoo guns.

But bleach may not be available. Plus, prisoners aren’t likely to use bleach kits if they are old and/or in poor condition, or the dispensing machines for them are located in a public place.

I’ve seen bleach dispensers that are corroded and rusted all over, right beside condom machines. Clearly, no one has wanted to use them for a long time.

Also, if the bleach kits are in a public area such as hallways by the gym and prisoners are spotted getting one, they run the risk of their cell being searched.

HIV and Hepatitis C can also be sexually transmitted. But in many prisons, condoms are only available in the nurse’s office. People may not want to go in and make the institution aware that they are sexually active.

I’ve heard about as many as 30 people using one needle, and it can be as thick as a BIC pen.

I’ve heard about people contracting Hep-C from blood on a punching bag at the prison gym, from fighting and from sharing sex toys.

I met a guy who did needles for the first time in prison, transmitted the virus outside, then went back inside.

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and hepatitis are 100% preventable

As it says on the Prison Health Now website, rates of HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection among prisoners are at least 10 and 30 times higher, respectively, than in the overall Canadian population.

There’s no reason why people coming out of prison should be affected by these diseases – and infect other inmates as well as family, friends and communities.

That’s why it’s important to get the word out and support needle exchange programs in our prisons. Knowledge is power and through prevention, awareness, and education we can help our native brothers and sisters participate in less risky behaviours and reduce harm.

Go to the Prison Health Now website to hear Julie’s full presentation.

Julie Thomas

Julie Thomas is the Program Manager/Executive Director of Healing our Nations, an organization that teaches and supports 31 First Nations communities in the Atlantic region plus northern Labrador in the prevention of HIV/AIDS and related issues. She has worked directly with inmates in federal institutions for the past five years. Julie is of Paq’tnkek First Nation ancestry.