Needle and syringe programs in prison: Why?

June 10, 2015

When we call on the Government of Canada to protect prisoners’ right to health by introducing prison-based needle and syringe programs, it is essential that the voices of people living in Canadian prisons be heard. Jarrod, a current federal prisoner, writes about how the Canadian government is failing to protect its prison population and must act now to address this life-and-death issue.

Needle and syringe programs in prison: Why?

By Jarrod G. Shook

Why would you give someone in prison a needle? Didn’t we put people in prison because they broke the law? And aren’t drugs illegal? So why would we give prisoners the equipment they need for intravenous drug use? Wait…why are there drugs in prison at all?

I will admit that at first glance the idea of a needle exchange program in a prison does seem bizarre, even absurd to me, and I am a prisoner. I can just imagine how someone with no familiarity with life behind the wall would react to such a suggestion.

Many, if not most, prisoners come to prison with substance use issues. Habitual drug use is often the motivating factor in people’s experience with conflict with the law. Secondly, prisons are not rehab facilities – far from it. There are drugs in prison and the reality of prison life is painful. Prisoners often use substances as a means of escaping the pain of their incarceration. Thirdly, prison policy, such as frequent drug testing, actually encourages the use of harder drugs like heroin and cocaine, the drugs most likely to be used intravenously, because softer drugs like Marijuana take much longer to pass through one’s system.

When you have a  demand for and a supply of drugs, the result is that there will be drug use. The problem is that, unlike on the street, where local street health organizations can deliver sterile needles to intravenous drug users, the ratio of users to needles in the prison is more like 20:1 (and that is probably being generous).

The implications of this are two-fold. It means that prisoners end up sharing needles, which also means they are likely to transmit infectious diseases to one another. And let us not forget that these people will return to their communities – your communities. The diseases transmitted through the sharing of needles are not just tragic but also very expensive to treat. The Canadian Health Care system (your tax dollars) thus picks up the bill for a failed prison drug policy.

But what about the needles? We can’t have needles floating around the prison, that’s a security risk! Sorry folks, they are already here. The only difference is we do not know where they are. With a needle exchange program we would because they would be catalogued and regulated.

Why don’t we just stop the prisoners from getting drugs? Okay, why don’t we just stop people from bringing cocaine across the border? Simplistic solutions do not treat complex problems. These issues are real, they are not going away and the best we can hope to do is remain humane and intelligent by trying to reduce the harm that they cause. A needle exchange program would be a logical step towards this objective.

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