It can come as a surprise to many in the general public to hear that illegal drugs make their way into prisons in Canada.
But what’s outright baffling for prison guards is a federal government decision to introduce a needle exchange program for inmates.
“This is heading towards condoning drug use behind penitentiary bars,” according to Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) president Jason Godin.
“It’s our job to uphold the law and to get inmates off of drugs rather than give them needles to inject drugs.”
On June 27, the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) rolled out the prison needle exchange program at two jails, Grand Valley Institution for Women in Ontario and Atlantic Institution in New Brunswick.
Godin said the needle exchange is coming to all federal institutions by January 2019.
The government formally announced the program on May 14.
“In keeping with the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, the Government of Canada is committed to protecting the health and safety of all Canadians, including federal inmates, through continued access to harm reduction and evidence-based health services,” Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale said in a press release. “We’re focused on ensuring that correctional institutions are secure environments conducive to inmate rehabilitation, staff safety and the protection of the public.”
The logic behind this later statement baffles Godin and his members, who say a prison is not a regular community like others where needle exchanges might work. As for staff safety, Godin can only see that decrease, and he also questions how this could protect the public.
“I think the Canadian public, in our view, has a right to know because 80 per cent of these inmates are going to be coming back to our communities and 80 to 90 per cent committed their crimes while on drugs or alcohol,” he said.
UCCO members have already held rallies against the CSC move to implement the needle exchanges, and they want the government to rescind the “dangerous program within our walls.”
They are asking the public to email their Members of Parliament about the subject.
Godin was asked to comment on the fact that many people are shocked to learn illegal drugs can get behind bars in the first place.
“We have tennis balls, body cavities, bows and arrows fired in,” he said during a phone interview with The Progress from Kingston, Ont. “Drones are the latest phenomena.”
Godin added that his union has been lobbying for full scanning machines at all federal prisons for years, something that exists in every prison in the U.S. and in all 26 provincial institutions in Ontario.
As for the practical, day-to-day question of how guards are supposed to deal with a needle exchange so that federal inmates can use illegal drugs, Godin has no idea.
“This is the question we haven’t been given a straight answer on,” he said. “What do you want us to do now?”
If guards see illegal drugs inside, they are supposed to confiscate them, but what if there is the residue of drugs on a needle in a cell?
“The real question is, what do you want us to do when the needles go missing?”
As for the intended goal of CSC, Godin insists rates of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C have already been on the decline inside prisons, and the money should be better spent on care and treatment.