Why correctional officers oppose prison needle exchange programs

For Canada's correctional officers, needle exchange programs in prison could become a matter of life and death, and not  just for the people they are intended to help.

"We've heard threats from inmates when they were first going to introduce this program that [a needle] would be the first thing that they would use against a correctional officer," Jeff Wilkins, Atlantic regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, told CBC Information Morning in Halifax.

The union organized a protest this week against the introduction of a needle exchange program at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro. The program already exists at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.

As well, not every inmate using intravenous drugs has access to his or her own needle or may not be approved for the program, and sharing will continue, Wilkins said Thursday.

The onus will be on corrections officers "to maintain observation and continued control as to where that needle is at all times," which is an extra burden, he said.

The union would like to see health-care workers bear that responsibility.

Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press

He said officers support the current system in place in prisons — sniffer dogs, body scanners, access to bleach for cleaning needles and methadone treatment — to prevent or minimize the use of IV drugs.

But Peter Brown, who spent 12 year in prisons in Canada, doesn't agree. He said he didn't use intravenous drugs when he was first incarcerated and developed the habit behind bars.

"My experience with it is — it's in there, people using the needles are already there. In the 12 years that I spent in [Atlantic Institution in Renous} whenever I wanted to use IV or if somebody else that I knew wanted to, we tracked down a needle."

Because needles are already in use behind bars, the risk of them being used as a weapons against guards is not new, he said.

Brown is completing a social services program while serving as a national board member for the Seventh Step Society, which provides peer support for ex-offenders.

He said treating people with hepatitis C and HIV is costly, in both human and health-care terms, and reducing the risk of infection is worth it.


"The treatment for hepatitis C is $80,000 and HIV is a lifetime disease. So these costs all come back onto our health-care system. If we can prevent ... just one person from contracting this disease, look at the savings on our health-care system alone."

Brown said there are a number of factors behind drug use in prisons which makes it likely that the practice isn't going to go away.

"Boredom was definitely one of them," he said. "The other one was probably because it becomes normal. So you know when you take everybody who has ... bad habits, drug habits, whatever these bad habits are, and you put them all in one place,  these things start to become normalized."

Lack of programs and educational opportunity in high-security penal institutions attributes to the drug use, he added.