Pubdate: Mon, 01 Nov 2004
Source: Province, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2004 The Province
Bookmark: (Hepatitis)
Bookmark: (Methadone)
Note: reprinted from The Ottawa Citizen


Canadian prisons might help reduce the spread of HIV and other
blood-borne diseases with a needle-exchange program for inmates, but
at too great a cost to the country's corrections policy.

Last week, the Ontario Medical Association and the Canadian HIV-AIDS
Legal Network called for Corrections Canada to start letting
incarcerated drug users exchange dirty needles for clean ones.

While the OMA acknowledges that HIV is not known to be an epidemic
among prisoners, it cites correctional-service figures that 1.8 per
cent of 12,755 federal prisoners were known to have the virus in 2001,
more than double the rate among non-prisoners.

Hepatitis C is vastly more common, with an estimated 23.5 per cent of
prisoners having the liver disease, a rate 29 times that of the population.

The doctors' association cites several correctional-service studies
that say injection-drug use is on the rise in our prisons. Recent
figures show 20-to-25 per cent of prisoners reported injecting drugs
while doing time.

Sharing needles to inject drugs is a common enough practice on the
outside, and it's no leap to assume it's even more common in our
prisons. And, of course, the spread of disease from using dirty
needles can affect those who don't use illegal drugs -- including
inmates and guards.

There is argument for both the legalization of drugs and for the
distribution of clean drug-use equipment to addicts as a public-health

Prisons are different, however. Most inmates are there because they
have shown themselves incapable of behaving with due respect for the
safety or property of others, and in many cases drug use has
contributed to their problems.

What neither the OMA nor the legal-advocacy group presents is any
evidence about what impact a needle-exchange program might have on the
government's ability to rehabilitate offenders. The law-advocacy group
belittles the idea that "providing bleach or sterile needles to
prisoners is seen to be condoning or promoting behaviour that the
prison should be seeking to eradicate as part of the individual's
'rehabilitation.'" But a prison that's supposed to rehabilitate people
who have problems with drugs simply cannot turn a blind eye if those
people continue to use them. If drug use is rampant in prisons, this
is an obvious failure of enforcement.

There is, however, valuable insight in the two groups' reports. They
point out, for example, that treatment for drug users is lacking in
many prisons. While methadone programs wouldn't help all drug addicts,
it's bizarre that they're available to very few prisoners, and often
limited to those on methadone before they were sent to prison.

Reducing the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases is a worthy
goal to which the federal and provincial governments should pay more

They must not, however, abandon their responsibility to help problem
drug-users who are in prison. Supplying them with needles, instead of
doing more to stop their access to drugs, would be irresponsible.
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