What to do when the iron is hot.

Two areas of recurring concern with Correctional Service of Canada’s operation of our federal prisons came up again in February.

The first is another push for prison needle programs, reported in the Toronto Star under Alex Ballingall’s byline on February 3 (“Prison needle programs touted to reduce HIV and Hap C risk”), and Kristy Kirkup’s column on February 13 (“Health study recommends prison syringe programs”).

“No drugs in prison is an aspirational goal that isn’t really achievable,” concluded Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network’s Seth Clarke (PASAN), published in a report released early in February. Toronto researchers, including Ryerson University’s Emily van der Meulen as lead author, PASAN, and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network hosted a conference on the subject, and later conducted interviews with health workers, inmates, and prison workers.

There are 60 existing programs in other countries, some like Switzerland’s have been running for more than 20 years, and there have been no reports of needles used as weapons. Even a 1999 Correctional Service of Canada study found needle programs “effective and well proven”.

Why should you care? Infection rates for HIV among inmates can be 10 times higher than in the general population, and Hep C can be as much as 30 times higher. At the moment, for inmates who are able to access treatment (and that can be a challenge), HIV drugs can run up to $30,000 a year, and new Hep C drugs that will cure the infection are about $60,000. This comes from your tax dollars! To boot, most inmates will return to the community where there are transmission risks, and additional drug costs; not to mention the human rights element, where prison inmates are entitled in theory to the same level of health care available to the rest of us.

Adding his voice, Howard Sapers, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, has argued that CSC should explore all harm reduction options when confronting the reality of ballooning health care costs.

There is an ongoing legal challenge against the government on this issue, launched in 2012 by an inmate in western Canada, along with community stakeholders. Government spokespersons are unable to comment openly as a result. However, the previous federal government (you remember it?) provided CSC with $120 million to fight access to drugs in prison, and while that increased interventions, is also drove up institutional drug prices. What’s left of that money could be diverted to the more progressive recommendations.

In another development, Lisa Kerr, assistant professor, at Queen’s University Faculty of Law essayed in a mid-February Globe and Mail edition (“Fewer inmates in solitary makes for case for legal reforms”) that Correctional Service of Canada has been reducing the number of inmates in segregation.

There has been no change in the law that could explain the reduction. However, the Trudeau government made it clear that it intends to implement changes on the use of solitary confinement in the face of CSC opposition to interference with its operational policies. It could be argued that CSC management is responding to the level of scrutiny and criticism of the practice in hopes passing time will diminish government oversight, thus allowing it to continue as it always has.

In both cases, prison needle programs and the reduction/elimination of solitary confinement, leaving reforms to the prison bureaucracy will bear only sour fruit. We have a federal government that is pushing evidence based policies for the benefit of all. The time to strike for new legislation and impose best practices on CSC is while our iron is hot.

In other words, now!

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