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Stopping HIV/AIDS in the prison system

By in News

The Concordian (Concordia University)

MONTREAL (CUP) — The rate of HIV and AIDS infection among prison inmates is anywhere from 10 to 20 times higher than the general population — a problem that could easily be curbed, according to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

The answer lies in giving inmates access to clean syringes and medical supplies, a basic medical necessity according to a report released by the network earlier this month.

The report follows another from last year, which attempted to showcase a legal framework for clean needle programs in prison. Distributing clean needles could be accomplished through several methods, including a peer-to-peer system amongst prisoners.

Such systems would help combat the current common practices of sharing a single syringe amongst multiple inmates, or using homemade needles made out of ear swabs and ballpoint pens.

Though the problem is concentrated in prisons, it is not isolated there, said Gilles Marchildon, director of communications for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

“Many of these prisoners go back to their families and communities eventually,” he said. “So this isn’t just a prison health issue, but a public health issue as well.”

Marchildon criticized the federal government for delaying the implementation of needle programs at prisons.

“We have a government now which prefers to take a tough-on-crime stance. But you have to stop and think about what’s the best investment for our money.”

According to Marchildon, similar programs already exist in over 60 prisons in 10 countries, where “the reports have been very positive.”

Public Safety Canada said that providing needles would go against its stance on drug use in prison. “The government of Canada has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs in our institutions,” wrote David Charbonneau, a spokesperson for the federal agency, in an email. “Providing needles for illicit drug use runs counter to that policy. Illicit drugs in federal prisons compromise the safety and security of correctional staff as well as our communities.”

Correctional Service Canada has published literature in the past arguing that its policies of increased infectious disease monitoring and providing free, confidential tests to inmates are helping to stabilize rates of HIV infection amongst prisoners, which it estimates between two and eight per cent amongst inmates. Past CSC newsletters have argued that the CSC already has “one of the most progressive approaches in the world” to combating infectious diseases.

But Craig Jones, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, which advocates on behalf on inmates, said current policies aren’t enough.

“When I walk through a prison, I see a lot of informative posters, but it’s a passive, low-level information campaign,” he said. “Does it work? No.”

Both Jones and Marchildon suggest that the recommendations are not likely to be implemented under the current Conservative federal government.

“If you look at this through a punitive mindset, it’s a bad idea,” Jones said. “But if you look at it through the lens of a public health issue, then you see a really easy, humane and effective way to arrest the spread of infectious diseases.”

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photo: Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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