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Canada: barring federal inmates access to clean needles in prison is unconstitutional, say activists

TORONTO — Barring drug-using federal prisoners from access to clean syringes puts them at risk for serious diseases and violates their rights, an Ontario court is set to hear.

For two days starting Monday, prison and other activists are expected to make the case that Ottawa’s rules and policies around needles in prisons are unconstitutional.

“The absolute prohibition on sterile injection equipment is arbitrary, overboard and grossly disproportionate,” the applicants say in their filings in Superior Court.

“Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to infringement of their (constitutional) rights because the government has total control over every aspect of their daily lives, including their access to health care.”

The case was initially launched in 2012 by Steven Simons, who was imprisoned from 1998 to 2010. Court documents show Simons became infected with the hepatitis C virus and was potentially exposed to HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, while behind bars. He says another prisoner used his injection materials, and that they had no access to sterile equipment.

The problem, the applicants say, is that prison authorities regard syringes as contraband, making inmates found with them subject to punishment. The tough approach comes despite mounting evidence that in-prison access to sterile needles helps prevent the spread of serious illnesses.

“The sharing of drug-injection equipment poses a high risk for transmitting blood-borne infections,” the applicants state.

“The prevalence of HIV and (hepatitis C) among Canadian prisoners, including those in federal penitentiaries, is significantly higher than among the population as a whole.”

Activists note that more than 90 per cent of prisoners are eventually released. Like Simons, some will have become infected with serious illnesses from sharing needles and syringes behind bars.

“Correctional authorities’ refusal to ensure access to sterile injection equipment inside prisons not only jeopardizes the health and lives of prisoners, it also contributes to a public health problem beyond prisons.”

Statistics suggest Indigenous and female inmates are most at risk, making Ottawa’s approach discriminatory, the applicants say.

In recognition of the problem, the federal government recently began a pilot needle-exchange program in which inmates are given access to sterile equipment. However, The pilot has only been implemented in half a dozen of Canada’s 43 federal prisons, according to court filings.

One intervener in the case, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says the response is not enough given that widespread drug use is an acknowledged fact of prison life in Canada.

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