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.
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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press