‘No new anything:’ Guards union says prison needle exchange expansion on hold

CALGARY — The union representing Canadian correctional officers says a program making clean needles available to inmates at a number of prisons across the country won’t be expanding to new institutions during the COVID-19 crisis.

Corrections Canada began the program in 2018 allowing inmates who use injection drugs to have access to clean syringes.

It has been rolled out across the country since June 2018 and is offered in at least nine of the 49 federal prisons including Atlantic Institution, Fraser Valley Institution, Edmonton Institution for Women, Joliette Institution and Dorchester Penitentiary. Bowden Institution in central Alberta was recently added to the list.

“As everything sits right now there’s no new anything. It’s completely stopped as far as the progression of new policies,” said James Bloomfield, Prairies regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“For example, at Bowden we have not actually got to the point of an inmate in a cell with a needle yet.”

The Correctional Service of Canada said the Prison Needle Exchange Program is continuing at institutions where it is already running and the hold on expansion is only temporary because of COVID-19.

“We have paused the consultation process temporarily for new implementation of PNEP because this requires extensive consultation and face-to-face meetings,” the department said in a statement. ”This is line with guidelines from the Public Health Agency of Canada about social distancing.”

Bloomfield estimates there are probably only about 50 inmates across the country enrolled in the needle exchange program now.

“If they have a needle in their cell, that needle will still be in their cell and they will be dealing with it as they do,” he said.

“But with the closure of a lot of things you start reducing the ability to get your illegal drugs in the institutions to use those needles.”

Bloomfield said Drumheller Institution, which is the only prison to offer a safe injection site, will be able to operate its program on a limited basis depending on the availability of health professionals.

The union prefers the idea of injection sites rather than needle exchanges because workers feel is poses a threat to staff.

“That’s the better of the two evils for us,” Bloomfield said.

He said the only priority for Canada’s prisons is to keep out COVID-19.

“Once it’s in there, it’s like a cruise ship. We’re all in the same location and it isn’t going to work well.”

The correctional service has touted the program as a way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by those who inject drugs and share needles in prison.

The service said HIV rates in prison are 200 times higher than in the general population, and hepatitis C rates are 260 times higher.

Sandra Ka Hon Chu, the director of research and advocacy with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network said she would be ”understandably concerned” if the program, which prevents the spread of infectious diseases, is suspended.

“Suspending the PNEP means prisoners will continue to be exposed to the risk of HIV and HCV infection as well as other harms to their health,” she said.

“As with other essential health care, CSC must and should be capable of continuing to deliver essential health care to its prisoners.”

The network, along with a former prisoner and three other HIV organizations, has sued the federal government over its failure to provide prisoners with easy, confidential, and effective access to needle and syringe programs. She said the safety concerns are unfounded.

“I’ve spoken to many prisoners who use makeshift equipment called ‘rigs’ that are crafted out of pens or diabetic needles and they’ve shared these with multiple prisoners in their cells,” she said.

“The idea that needles don’t already exist in prison is false.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2020.

Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Prison Needle Use

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Artist Nathan Scott’s The Face-off is one of Red Deer’s most recent public artworks. It was installed at Servus Arena. (Advocate file photo.)
Red Deer city council opts to leave public art selection to a commission

Only projects costing at least $1 million will now trigger art component

Red Deer City Coun. Michael Dawe spoke up about an attempted break-in at his home during a city council meeting that discussed policing priorities. (Advocate file photo).
All crimes should be reported, says Red Deer’s RCMP superintendent

Policing priorities are cracking down on property and drug crimes

The number of active cases of COVID-19 in the province sat at 4,477 Monday afternoon, up 826 from Friday’s 3,651, said Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. File photo
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up Monday

Alberta reported 1,440 new COVID-19 cases on Monday from over the weekend,… Continue reading

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Three Red Deer based dealerships have donated $10,000 to various local organizations including the food bank. (File Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Three Red Deer car dealerships help organizations in need

Three Red Deer automobile dealerships have come together to donate $10,000 to… Continue reading

“Our members have decided they just can’t do this anymore. We’ve protected this province and you’ve treated us like dirt, so enough is enough,” says AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola, whose members protested outside the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre on Momday. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Updated: Hospital workers strike in Red Deer

Some surgeries and ambulatory care clinics postponed around the province

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre could be affected by cuts to Alberta Health Services announced by the government Tuesday. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
David Marsden: Yes, we know how to do laundry

Union leaders would have us believe there’s something special about their members:… Continue reading

B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts owner, Senator David Braley speaks after the CFL announced Vancouver will host the 2014 Grey Cup championship football game during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday March 8, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
David Braley, owner of three Canadian Football League franchises, dead at 79

David Braley, owner of three Canadian Football League franchises, dead at 79

Alberta alternate Heather Nedohin skips against Saskatchewan during the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in St. Catharines, Ont., on February 21, 2017. Big-game skipping experience. Two national women's curling titles. Two world bronze medals. There's plenty to like about Heather Nedohin's resume. In bringing her on board as coach, Team Kerri Einarson is hoping her knowledge, drive and spirit will help them stay at the top. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Two-time Scotties champ Heather Nedohin to coach Team Kerri Einarson this season

Two-time Scotties champ Heather Nedohin to coach Team Kerri Einarson this season

Wayne Gretzky, left, holds up a banner bearing his number during a jersey retirement ceremony with Joey Mos in Edmonton on Firday, October 1, 1999. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Legendary Edmonton locker-room attendant Joey Moss dies at 57

Legendary Edmonton locker-room attendant Joey Moss dies at 57

Wild caribou roam the tundra in Nunavut on March 25, 2009. Canada and Alberta have signed a deal on caribou protection that gives them years to take action but could allow energy drilling to resume right away on some ranges. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canada, Alberta agree on caribou protection deal that gives them years to take action

Canada, Alberta agree on caribou protection deal that gives them years to take action

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney answers questions after announcing $43 million in repairs and improvements to provincial parks at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. All of the Alberta politicians who came into contact with a provincial cabinet minister infected with COVID-19 have tested negative for the virus.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Alberta politicians in contact with COVID-19-infected minister test negative

Alberta politicians in contact with COVID-19-infected minister test negative

Alberta's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. The Alberta government is hoping to get more Albertans employed by moving to limit the number and type of temporary foreign workers it allows into the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Alberta to limit temporary foreign worker program to save jobs for Albertans

Alberta to limit temporary foreign worker program to save jobs for Albertans

Most Read