Goodale hints prison needle programs could be changed

OTTAWA — Prison needle-exchange programs that guards say will endanger their health and safety could get another look, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale signalled Tuesday.

The federal prison service has already set up needle programs at institutions in Ontario and New Brunswick in a bid to reduce the incidence of infectious diseases among inmates.

The initiative, to be rolled out to all federal prisons beginning in January, gives inmates access to clean needles in an effort to limit the transmission of hepatitis C and HIV.

Jason Godin, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says the plan clashes with the longstanding principle of a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and makes prisons more dangerous for the people who work in them.

Allowing inmates to use needles in their cells will considerably increase risks for guards, who might be injured or infected by needle-sticks, the union says. It notes that in similar programs in some European countries, injecting is not permitted in cells, only in centres supervised by health professionals.

“We’re trying to get the government to look at other options that might be available,” Godin said Tuesday in an interview. “We’re not in favour of the program, but at the same time if they’re going down that road, we want it to be implemented in the safest possible way.”

Goodale told the House of Commons public-safety committee Tuesday he had a very good discussion with Godin last week and wants the union to have “the absolute confidence” its work is respected.

“It is critically important work and it is tough work,” Goodale said. “I want to make sure that as much as humanly possible we respond to the legitimate representations of the UCCO.”

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