TORONTO - Stop us when this feels like Alice falling through the looking glass.
Federal prisoners are complaining their Charter rights are being violated because they're not being supplied with clean needles to inject their illegal drugs - the same drugs that probably landed them behind bars in the first place.
Former Warkworth inmate Steve Simons as well as four AIDS prevention advocacy groups have launched a lawsuit against Ottawa alleging its repeated failure to provide clean needle and syringe programs in federal institutions is contributing to the increased risk of prisoners contracting HIV and hepatitis C.
Instead of monetary damages, Simons and the organizations are seeking a court injunction forcing the Harper government to provide clean drug needles in prisons across the country.
And here we thought jail was to get criminals off drugs, not to help them maintain their habit on the taxpayers' dime.
The face of the lawsuit is Simons, imprisoned at Warkworth Institution from 1998 to 2010, who contracted hep C when a fellow inmate used his drug injection equipment. "When I was in prison, I would see people passing one homemade needle around and sharpening it with matchbooks. The needle would be dirty and held together with hot glue. I watched people shove a dull needle to try to penetrate their skin, creating craters, abscesses and disfigurements," Simons said in a statement.
Needle exchanges are nothing new. A successful part of harm reduction strategies going back two decades, they've been set up in countless cities so users can get clean needles rather than risk contracting disease from using shared or dirty ones. But do they belong in the very places where criminals are sent for punishment and rehabilitation?
Jailed drug users deserve to have the same rights as those on the outside, argues Sandra Ka Hon Chu, senior policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, one of the four organizations involved in the lawsuit. "Prisoners are just asking for equivalent health care access," she said in an interview.
"The situation with prisoners in Canada is pretty dire," Chu said. "The HIV rate and hepatitis C rate in the federal system are at least 10 and 30 times respectively higher in prison than they are in the community - in part due to the unavailability of sterile injection equipment behind bars."
Chu warns those numbers will only grow exponentially with the Harper government's tough on crime agenda putting more criminals in prisons. Aboriginal women are especially at risk, she said, with one in every two federal inmates having hep C.
Clean needle programs have existed in Swiss penitentiaries since 1992 and can now be found in 10 other countries as well, such as Germany and Spain, with no evidence of increased drug use or harm to prison guards, she argued.
Not surprisingly, though, the proposal has been repeatedly spurned by Ottawa, the same government that tried to close down Vancouver's supervised injection site until the Supreme Court of Canada told them to back off.
"Our government has a zero tolerance policy for drugs in our institutions," Public Safety minister Vic Toewes repeated in the House of Commons after being questioned about the lawsuit. "That is why we made a commitment during the last election to develop drug-free prisons. Drug use among prisoners dramatically reduces their chances of successful rehabilitation."
The feds' focus is where it should be - on stopping the drugs from coming into prisons in the first place. But a Warkworth guard admits it's a tough battle.
"We try our best to get all the drugs that we can, but they do slip through," acknowledged the guard, who doesn't want his name used. "These guys are pretty ingenious - they've made homemade syringes out of Bic pens."
Still, he doesn't believe a needle exchange is the answer. Arming inmates with clean needles would pose a risk not only to guards, but other prisoners as well. And more importantly, he added, what kind of message would that send?
"We want no needles. We want no drugs," he insisted. "We give them clean needles, we're saying, ‘Yeah, it's okay to do drugs here."
If there's a drug problem in prison, then starve it. Don't feed it.