Pubdate: Wed, 27 Oct 2004
Source: Edmonton Sun (CN AB)
Copyright: 2004, Canoe Limited Partnership.
Author: Mindelle Jacobs, For the Edmonton Sun
Bookmark: (Hepatitis)
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Needle exchange programs should be set up in federal and provincial
prisons immediately because international research has shown there are
dramatic benefits, says the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

In a report to be released today, the organization says there is
indisputable evidence that prison needle exchange programs don't
endanger staff or inmate safety and don't increase drug

In addition, it has been shown that such programs reduce risk
behaviour and disease transmission (including HIV and hepatitis C).

"Needle exchange has been available in some prisons for as long as 10
years, and it is an approach that has been rigorously evaluated
everywhere it has been enacted," says the report.

"Prison systems and governments can no longer avoid their
responsibilities to provide for the health of prisoners by dismissing
prison needle exchange programs as something new or untested. They are

Despite proven benefits, only six countries have needle exchange
programs in prisons - Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan
and Belarus.

The authors of the study examined the services offered in each
jurisdiction, including visiting jails in the first four countries,
and did an extensive literature review of the subject.

Throughout most of the world, the report notes, the primary response
to illicit drug use has been to boost law enforcement efforts.

Far from curbing the problem, the result has been an unprecedented
growth in prison populations and the incarceration of increasing
numbers of people with drug problems, it says.

And the sharing of needles has led to an epidemic of HIV and hepatitis
C in jails.

"The fact remains that illicit drugs get into prisons and prisoners
consume them," the report says. "Just as in the community, drugs are
present in prisons because there is a market for them and because
there is money to be made selling them."

Why should we care whether prisoners get HIV/AIDS? Because they're not
in jail forever. Most inmates are released fairly quickly. Their
diseases leave jail with them.

In reality, the refusal of authorities to make sterile needles
available in prisons is to condone the spread of HIV and other
bloodborne infections in the larger community, says the study.

There have been numerous reports by Canadian governmental and
non-governmental bodies over the past decade calling for prison needle
exchange programs, yet Ottawa has refused to budge on the issue.

"It's time to act," Ralf Jurgens, executive director of the Canadian
HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said yesterday.

"We have all the evidence and experience from these other countries.
It's a very serious public health issue."

Just last weekend, a jail guard at Drumheller Institution was pricked
by a discarded needle while he was doing a routine contraband search.
That likely wouldn't have happened if inmates had access to clean
needles, Jurgens said.

No prison staff in Switzerland have suffered needle-stick injuries in
the decade since that country became the first in the world to
implement a prison needle exchange program, he added.

An evaluation of a pilot project at a Swiss women's prison found that
needle sharing virtually disappeared, there was no increase in drug
consumption and there were no new cases of HIV, hepatitis B or
hepatitis C in the prison population, according to the study.

The report outlines similar successes with needle exchange programs in
the other five countries studied. The most significant positive
outcome of the introduction of sterile needles has been the dramatic
decrease in fatal and non-fatal heroin overdoses in prison, the study

Drugs are available in jails all over the world, Jurgens pointed out.
"We need to be pragmatic about this."

Prison guards in other countries have become vocal advocates of needle
exchange programs, he said.
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