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Prison Guards Fear HIV, But Oppose Clean Needles

Supplying clean needles hands weapons to inmates, guards say. But as drug injection and tattooing sow disease, prison officials are desperate for remedies.

Scott Deveau 23 Nov
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Terry Leger, a prison guard at Matsqui prison in Abbotsford, still has a tiny scar from where an inmate stabbed him with a dirty needle in January 2003. It could have been worse, because after the prisoner was contained, Leger found a makeshift knife stashed in the prisoner's pants.

Leger's scar on his left hand is the size of a pin prick, but the incident forced him into anti-retroviral treatment for the next month.

Canadian corrections officers reported 167 incidents of guards being poked with dirty needles in the last seven-and-a-half years. Because federal prisons have a zero tolerance policy for paraphernalia, needles are well hidden in prisoner's rooms.

Usually it's during room inspection that officers come across hidden needles the hard way.

But along with incidents like Leger's, guards have been held hostage in two separate incidents in Ontario by inmates with syringes filled with what was believed to be contaminated blood.

'It was hell'

Nineteen side effects are possible during anti-retroviral treatment, from facial numbness, loss of appetite, and chronic diarrhea.

Leger experienced 17 of those side effects, in addition to depression and alienation from his wife and two young children over the next year while he waited for the Hepatitis C incubation period to pass.

During that year, he said he wasn't quick to hug his family or kiss them. He even moved his own toothbrush away from the rest of his family's, which were in a holder by the bathroom sink.

"It was hell. I wouldn't wish that on anyone," Leger told The Tyee.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers launched a national campaign Tuesday to draw attention to the dangers they face on the job. The union has spent more than 75 days over the past two years in contract negotiations with the federal government since its contract expired. The campaign is being used to draw attention to their concerns about safety, management, pensions, and the proliferation of weapons in federal prisons.

Union officials say the number of weapons seized - 1199 in the past year - is on the rise and there are higher rates of infectious disease in prisons. They feel both problems will be exacerbated by two programs currently being considered by Correctional Service Canada.

Union officials say harm reduction strategies used on the outside of prisons will not translate on the inside.

Syringe, tattoo projects considered

Correctional Service is considering a needle exchange program across the country and a "tattoo pilot project" in six of the nation's 54 federal penitentiaries, according to Michèle Pilon-Santilli, Correction Service's communication director.

Pilon-Santilli said both strategies are aimed to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C in federal prisons, but the union says the plans pose further risks to the officers.

Currently prisons hand out condoms, lubricants, and bleach kits for cleaning needles to try to curb the spread of infectious diseases.

Still, according to Pilon-Santilli, the HIV rate in prison is seven to 10 times higher than in the general public. Hepatitis C rates are more than 30 times higher in prisons.

The needle exchange program is still in its very early exploration stage, but the tattoo program is ready to be launched once Correctional Service decides which prisons will participate.

"They're not tattoo parlors, they're tattoo pilot initiatives," Pilon-Santilli said.

The program will have one inmate tattooing other inmates, using sterilized tattoo needles, under the supervision of guard. The program's purpose is to reduce the spread of infectious disease and no gang or racist tattoos will be given.

As it stands, inmates tattoo themselves with anything from a piece of metal to a pen, Pilon-Santilli said. Once they've found something that works, several inmates will be tattooed with the same device. With 95 per cent of inmate released back into society at some point, it's a public health issue, Pilon-Santilli said. The same holds true for the needle exchange, she added.

'No way' says union

"We have a duty to look at all harm reduction initiatives. But we understand that the needle exchange is a controversial and complex issue. We have no intentions of doing something immediately, it's something we're still exploring," Pilon-Santilli.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers doesn't need any time decide.

"No way, shape or form would the corrections officers, or the union, agree to a needle exchange," said union president Sylvain Martel. He said with more needles in prisons, more officers will be poked.

Likewise, he disapproves of the tattoo project and its $3 million price tag.

"That's taxpayers' money. In the 1990s, the big thing was to de-tattoo someone," said Martel, who added the costly effort was meant to help prisoners reintegrate into society.

"Now, we're going to pay for them to be tattooed and a month before their release we're going to have them de-tattooed. They say it will reduce the infectious disease inside (the prison), which is bullshit, bologna." 

Tattoos said to fuel gangs

Martel said his biggest objection to the tattoo project is that it will perpetuate gang activity in the prisons. Often esoteric tattoos are used to identify gang members, he said, and the inmate giving the tattoos would also be under pressure not to tattoo members of rival gangs.

He is also concerned that both the needles in the exchange and the tattoo needles will find their way in the general prison population.

Pilon-Santilli said since the tattooing is done in a controlled environment, than there is no way the needles will find their way into the general population. But Martel said medical syringes are often stolen under similar circumstances from prison medical services.

"It's very simple how to reduce infection rates; have a zero-tolerance policy and mean it. If you have no drugs, you don't need needles to shoot them," Martel said.

He said when inmates get caught with drugs, they are often handed minimal punishment through internal disciplinary hearings. But if criminal charges were applied to those in possession of drugs, Martel feels it would curb the use of drugs in prison.

"These programs come from the medical side of CSC. Those people are doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists. It's those doctors in Ottawa that are thinking about this from their ivory tower." 

Good results reported in Europe

Glenn Betteridge is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. He co-authored a 2004 report exploring prison needle exchanges in European prisons and the current penal system in Canada. Contrary to what Martel predicts, none of the European prisons using needle exchange programs reported those needles being used in attacks. In fact, in Germany, the program was cancelled when the government changed hands. Prison guards in that country protested because they realized how much safer the exchange program made the prisons, he said.

The report also found that despite a zero tolerance policy in Canadian prisons, in 2003, 11 per cent of all participants, 439 adult males, 158 females, in six Ontario correctional centres had a history of injecting drugs in the past year while incarcerated; 32 per cent of those who reported reported injecting with used needles.

There is no shortage of ways to get drugs in prison. In fact, officers at Matsqui prison recently found 34 grams of uncut heroin in a prisoner's cell. 

"There is a zero tolerance policy across the world in prisons; it doesn't mean they don't exist. The needles that are in prison are dirty," Betteridge said.

Most of the European prisoners participating in the needle exchange keep their needles in plastic cases, in shaving kits, or in a holder pinned to a cork board so that guards know where the needles are kept. They do this despite a zero tolerance policy in the prison, he added.

Homemade needles

Some of the needles used in Canadian prisons are home made, from tape, ball point pens, and old parts of syringes, which are virtually impossible to sterilize. In his research, Betteridge said bleach has been proven ineffective in preventing the spread of Hepatitis C, particularly with homemade needles.

However, Betteridge admits that not every prisoner should partake in the needle exchange.

"People who have psychiatric or mental health issue that make them a danger should not be taking part in a needle exchange program. That's a decision for the institution to make. Similarly those with a history of violence against correction staff should not be part of the program," Betteridge said.

"It also decreases the overall rate of HIV and Hepatitis C in a correctional institution which makes it a safer place," he added. "There's a common sensicle idea that any needle poses a danger, but that isn't borne out by the evidence."

Scott Deveau is a staff reporter for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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