Expansion of prison needle exchange programs continues despite pandemic delays

These programs complement the country’s only prison-based “overdose prevention service,” which started operations in 2019 at the Drumheller Institute for medium-security men in Alberta. It is essentially a controlled injection site, with sterile equipment and consumption under observation.

Since the site opened, there have been 55 participants, 1,591 visits and no overdoses at the site, officials told the conference. pre-exposure prophylaxis – medicine taken to prevent you from getting HIV.

All of these efforts have led to a decline in infections, said Marie-Pierre Gendron, an epidemiologist with Correctional Service Canada. She said HIV infection rates among inmates fell nationally from 2.02 percent of the prison population in 2007 to 0.93 percent in 2020; and hepatitis C has fallen from 21 percent in 2010 to 3.2 percent in 2021.

“I am encouraged by the way they describe the program as something they are proud of,” said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, co-executive director of the HIV Legal Network.

But a major “red flag” that could lead to lower participation is the fact that security personnel are involved in the process, she said. That’s not the case with the needle exchange programs in other countries, some of which are completely anonymous or even offer syringes in automated dispensing machines.

“It’s really a critical flaw in the program,” she said.

Inmates are subject to a security threat assessment and security guard approval before accessing programs, as officials described the process. Nearly a quarter of requests to join the program have been turned down, according to statistics presented at the conference.

Shawn Huish, the director of Mission Institution in British Columbia, said it has been challenging to change the mindset of correctional workers who are used to searching for drugs, confiscating them and trying to prevent inmates from using them — while they at the same time reassuring the inmates that participation in the program would not affect their release.

There was a lot of “fake news” to combat, Huish said, including a billboard erected outside the prison portraying the program in a negative light.

“Our main focus was talking, educating, breaking through the fear. If a needle is recognized in prison, it can be scary for people,” he said. ‘You’re afraid you’ll get needle pricks. So we looked at the files. In two and a half years, a staff member was pinned, and that was during the search, and it was a pushpin.”

Leah Cook, the regional manager of public health for the Prairies, oversaw the implementation of the supervised injection site in Drumheller and said it is “the only known service of its kind in a correctional setting on the world stage, of which I am incredibly proud.” on am. ”

Cook said a “safe zone” was created so program participants could carry their own drug stash to the observation room without fear of being searched — and it has been nicknamed the “yellow brick road.”

Correctional Service Canada did not immediately respond to questions sent over the weekend.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 2, 2022.

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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