TORONTO - A new report calls for the establishment of needle and syringe distribution programs in Canada's prisons, warning the high rate of bloodborne infections in prisons is a public health issue that affects all of society.
The report, from the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network, said there is evidence from other countries that the programs reduce transmission of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C among inmates and do so without adding to levels of institutional violence.
"People in our communities currently have access to needle and syringe programs. Therefore, people in prison should have the same access to clean needles and syringes," the organization said.
"It violates the human rights of people in prison to deny them the same tools available to people in our communities, who use these programs to protect themselves from disease."
The report uses personal histories provided by 50 men and women who have spent time in Canadian prisons; they openly recount how prevalent drug use is in correctional facilities. Many are identified by their full names, though some supply their observations under a pseudonym.
The stories they tell are of a world where clean needles are far more difficult to obtain than drugs, where drug use is rampant and the sharing of injection paraphernalia commonplace.
"I know that 30 or 40 people would share one syringe," said a man identified as Gordon, 54, from Toronto.
"Sometimes there was only one syringe in the whole jail and you would have to pay to use it. I've seen six guys use a single syringe without cleaning it."
While a number of countries in Europe have needle and syringe programs in prisons and others are considering them, none of Canada's prisons has such a program, the report said.
And HIV-AIDS specialist Dr. Peter Ford thinks it is unlikely that gap will be filled any time soon.
"The prisons are a reservoir for these infections," Ford, who treats HIV-infected patients in federal penitentiaries in Ontario, said of HIV and hepatitis C.
"But we're got a right-wing government who are hot on bashing crime and putting people in prison and throwing away the key. They're not going to institute needle exchange."
Ford, who was not involved in the legal network's report, suggested that it is not likely to fall on fertile ground. "It's not even going to get to be a discussion point."
Though he's pessimistic about the potential of the report to effect a change in federal policy, Ford is sympathetic to the goals. He has done a lot of research on the rates of these diseases in prisons and is an advocate for harm-reduction programs for prison inmates.
The majority of inmates do at some point get released back into the community. If they are infected with HIV and-or hepatitis C, they can spread infection to others, the report noted. And those cases drive up the cost of medical care in the country.
"It's a very scary public health issue that nobody seems to be paying any attention to," Ford said, adding he thinks it is a problem society ignores at its peril.
"I think in years to come people are going to blink a little and ask why nothing was done."