Prison needle use should be supervised to ensure safety, guards say

OTTAWA — Setting up supervised injection sites at federal institutions is the way to go if the Correctional Service plans to continue making needles available to drug-using inmates, prison guards say.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers says one such injection site at Drumheller Institution in Alberta is proving a safer alternative to the service's needle-exchange program, operating at seven federal prisons.

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The Correctional Service considers both initiatives important elements of the effort to limit transmission of hepatitis C and HIV in institutions. It has long tried to keep drugs from entering prisons, but recognizes that contraband finds its way to inmates.

The union opposes making needles available to inmates at all, citing the risk of being pricked accidentally or on purpose.

But it says if the prison service wants to continue distributing needles, then the injection site, known as an overdose prevention service, should be the model. It involves giving inmates access to needles so they can use them in a supervised setting with nursing staff.

The needle-exchange program, introduced last year, provides injection kits that eligible inmates can use in their cells.

The prison service does a risk assessment to evaluate security concerns before approving an inmate for the program. To date, there have been 63 applications, of which 10 were rejected, said Veronique Rioux, a Correctional Service spokeswoman.

Correctional officers have seen inmates in the program share needles with others, said Jeff Wilkins, national president of the union.

"When you put the needle in an inmate's cell and they're sharing it with Johnny across the range, then obviously that spreads infectious disease," he said.

In one case, the union says, a needle was discovered in another inmate's cell. In another case, a needle was missing from a cell.

Safety and security are priorities for the Correctional Service, said Rioux. Appropriate safeguards ensure injection kits are safely stored and accounted for at all times, she said.

Each kit and its contents are visually inspected daily and will be seized if they appear to be altered or any of the contents cannot be unaccounted for, or are seen outside of the kit, Rioux said. Infractions could result in reassessment of an inmate's eligibility for the program and institutional disciplinary measures.

"Since program implementation, no needles have gone missing," Rioux said. "When needles have not been stored in the approved location, staff recovered the needle and the participant was removed from the program."

There have been no reported assaults involving needles since the program began, she added.

The Drumheller prevention site, established in June, has been used more than 300 times by 23 users without incident, according to statistics collected by the union.

"The only really safe option is the overdose prevention site," Wilkins said.

The union has been told the prison service will introduce more needle-exchange programs before the end of the year at two more institutions — one in British Columbia, the other in New Brunswick — as well as an overdose prevention service at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia.

Wilkins suspects the cost of providing the prevention services means the prison service sees needle-exchange programs as the preferred model.

"I know that they don't have the extra money to keep rolling out overdose prevention sites, but that's something that whatever government is elected is going to have to think about."

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2019.

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