In Canada, prisoners face far greater risk of HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection because those who inject drugs are denied access to sterile needles and syringes — tools that are widely available outside prison so people are not forced to share equipment. Most federal prisoners in Canada will return home to their communities, bringing with them the illnesses they contract in prison. This, in turn, can affect us all.

Simply put, prison health is community health.

Prison needle and syringe programs (PNSPs) don’t just protect prisoners from infection. They would also protect the health and lives of all Canadians. Despite overwhelming evidence of the benefits of PNSPs from numerous countries around the world that have successfully implemented them, no Canadian prison currently permits access to sterile injection equipment. Calls for the Government of Canada to introduce these important harm reduction measures have been ignored.

But no more. On September 25, 2012, a former prisoner, community partners and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network launched a lawsuit against the Government of Canada over its failure to protect prisoners’ right to health and prevent the spread of HIV and HCV in Canadian federal prisons.

Follow the links above to learn more about prisoners’ right to health, PNSPs, the lawsuit and how to get involved in the campaign.


Election 2015: Prisoners’ right to health — Canada’s major federal parties respond

October 9, 2015

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts being published by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network ahead of Election Day on October 19, 2015. Recently, the Legal Network sent a questionnaire to the five major federal parties, asking their position on key questions related to HIV and human rights. Four out of five parties responded. Their responses are shared here, along with the Legan Network's comments.

Across Canada, publicly funded needle and syringe programs help prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C (HCV). But these programs do not exist inside Canadian prisons — even though the federal government’s own research shows that drugs get into prisons despite efforts to block them, and that many people in prison struggle with addiction and inject drugs, including by sharing makeshift injection equipment.

In Canada, the prevalence of HIV and HCV infection among people in prison is at least 10 and 30 times higher, respectively, than in the overall population. If implemented, prison needle and syringe programs (PNSPs) would give people in prison access to the same health services available outside prisons, and also make workplaces safer for prison staff by reducing the likelihood of accidental injuries via non-sterile injection equipment shared by many people.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of PNSPs around the world, no Canadian prison currently permits the distribution of sterile injection equipment to prisoners. This continuing failure of Canada’s lawmakers and prison authorities undermines the health of prisoners, violates human rights and leads to significant, avoidable costs of treating HIV and HCV infections that could have been prevented. Because most people in prison eventually return to the community, the health of prisoners is also a broader public health concern.

We asked the major political parties whether they would support the implementation of PNSPs in Canada’s federal prisons.

All four parties that responded were in favour of harm reduction programs, with varying degrees of clear commitment.

The New Democratic Party explicitly stated its support: “New Democrats believe that harm reduction does not stop at the prison gate. And protecting the health and lives of prisoners, prison staff and, in the longer term, the public-at-large by eliminating the transfer of infectious diseases is a question of harm reduction and should be dealt with as such. In this respect, all the proven, scientifically-based benefits of needle and syringe programs apply inside prisons as much as in the community. An NDP government will support the implementation of such programs. Denying these programs constitutes a needless risk to human health and is bad public policy.”

The Bloc Québécois also explicitly supported PNSPs, stating simply: “The Bloc Québécois supports the idea of needle exchanges in Canada’s federal prisons.”

The Green Party was also direct and unequivocal in its support: “Yes. Harm reduction practices work — and they are desperately needed in our increasingly overcrowded prisons. Prisoners’ rights are human rights. Prisoners do not forfeit their right to health care just because they have committed a crime. In fact, their unique needs and risk factors for addiction and other health challenges warrant specialized health services, including prison needle and syringe programs in Canada’s federal prisons.” (The Green Party also shared its criticism of mandatory minimum prison sentences, poor prison conditions such as over-crowding and solitary confinement, and other ideas for improving correctional policy.)

The Liberal Party stated that “[w]e recognize that there is compelling evidence to support needle and syringe programs (NSP) in prisons,” and adding that “any changes must rely on evidence to demonstrate that [harm reduction programs] are necessary to ensure Canadians’ safety.” The Liberal Party promised to “carefully review statements by groups like the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network that the Conservative government is violating the rights of inmates under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by failing to provide prison needle and syringe programs inside prisons.”

The Conservative Party of Canada did not respond to the questionnaire.

Needle and syringe programs in prison: Why?

June 9, 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 [prison needle and syringe] program 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. Read more.


On April 30, 2015,the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network co-hosted an ancillary event on this topic at the Annual Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS Research (CAHR), along with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN), Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), and Ryerson University’s Department of Criminology. Read more about the event here.

A closer look at harm reduction in prison: why PNSPs are best practices

February 10, 2015

Emily van der Meulen and the Legal Network’s Sandra Ka Hon Chu have published an important article calling much-needed attention to prison-based needle and syringe programs in the Canadian prison system as harm reduction best practice.

We encourage you to read Harm reduction behind bars: Prison-based needle and syringe programs.

New commentaries on harm reduction in Canadian prisons

February 10, 2015

Tara Marie Watson’s posts in a three-part series highlight the critical need to consider policy and program reform relating to harm reduction in Canadian federal prisons. Watson has longstanding interests in drug policy and correctional populations, and research experience related to public health programming for people who use drugs.

Subject: Op/ed: Lack of needle exchange in federal prison a costly policy for inmate health, taxpayers

November 12, 2014
Stephanie Claivaz-Loranger and Anne Marie DiCenso
The Kingston Whig-Standard, Opinion Column

Recently, correctional investigator Howard Sapers tabled his annual report on the state of Canadian prisons. Importantly, the report focused on the "varied, complex and extensive" needs of prisoners, both current and former, and how the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) meets or fails to meet these needs. Given the intersecting burdens of an ideologically misguided "war on drugs" (often aptly described as a war on people who use drugs) and a recent political penchant for incarceration, Sapers points to some critical realities facing our prison population, their health and human rights. The picture isn't pretty.

Read more here.

Subject: The politics of harm reduction in federal prisons

November 11, 2014

In correctional facilities across Canada, there is an identified need for prison needle and syringe programs (PNSPs). The Correctional Service of Canada has barriers in place so that PNSPs currently cannot operate within the federal prison system. In “The politics of harm reduction in federal prisons,” Tara Marie Watson examines these political barriers

This is an abstract of the paper; to access the full version, you can purchase it here.

The politics of harm reduction in federal prisons

By Tara Marie Watson
Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto


Background: We need to understand better the political barriers to prison-based harm reduction programs. In this paper, I examine the situation in the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), a federal prison agency with a zero-tolerance drug policy and general opposition to prison needle and syringe programs (PNSPs) and safer tattooing initiatives.

Methods: This study draws on 16 interviews with former CSC senior officials, former frontline staff, and external stakeholders; CSC policy and practice documents; and testimony from a House of Commons Standing Committee public study. Thematic coding and comparison of texts were used to examine emergent themes of interest.

Results: Four interrelated issues were central for understanding the political barriers: a narrower definition of harm reduction used in corrections, both in principle and practice; the Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda; strong union opposition; and stakeholder perceptions that political constraints will likely persist, including the view that litigation may offer the only way to introduce PNSPs.

Conclusion: The system is at an impasse and key questions remain about the importability of harm reduction services into federal prisons. Despite a highly challenging policy environment, moving forward will demand asking new, critical questions and devising more strategic ways of entering the political-operational dialogue that opposes evidence-based programs.

On Point: Making Prison Needle and Syringe Programs Work in Canada

On Point: Making Prison Needle and Syringe Programs Work in Canada, co-hosted by prison health advocates and Ryerson University on January 23, 2014, was a lively panel discussion on the reasons prison needle and syringe programs are essential, and why prisoners’ right to health – in Canada and around the world – matters. Using strong examples from other countries’ prison needle and syringe programs, experts  showed how Canada could learn from these success stories.

Please watch each of the On Point speakers (Daniela De Santis - Hindelbank Prison, Switzerland; Ruth Elwood Martin - University of British Columbia, Vancouver; Sandra Ka Hon Chu - Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Toronto; and Julie Thomas - Healing Our Nations, Nova Scotia) below.  Some of their PowerPoint presentations are also included. Many thanks to the OHTN for video-recording the event, and to CATIE for editing the videos. 

On Point with Julie Thomas, Healing Our Nations, Nova Scotia


On Point with Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Toronto

On Point: making prison needle and syringe programs work in Canada (PPT: 1.17 MB)

On Point with Daniela De Santis, Hindelbank Prison, Switzerland

In prison drugs do not enter! That's what the authorities mostly say… (PPTX: 11.97 MB)

On Point with Ruth Elwood Martin, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Women’s experiences of incarceration in Canada: HCV/HIV and IDU (PPTX: 4.51 MB)

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It's easy to become addicted to drugs in prison because of the negative atmosphere. People feel depressed and it's an escape from reality.”