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Health crisis ‘runs deep’ in prisons: activist

Safer tattooing advocate wins award

LONG WAY TO GO. Michael Collins (right), father of prison activist Peter Collins, receives the Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights on behalf of his son Jun 16. Credit: Pat Croteau photo

Peter Collins’ distrust of the Canadian government peaks through in his acceptance speech.

“One day,” he says, “when we elect government leaders with moral integrity, or with the moral integrity to follow the expert advice and the humanity to impose life-affirming change, our society will be closer to a place where all can be proud.”

On Jun 16, Collins received the Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights for his work trying to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C in Canadian prisons. The award has been granted annually by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Collins’ work set the stage for the safer tattooing initiative in Canadian prisons.

Nearly two out of five men in federal prisons will get a homemade tattoo while incarcerated. Although homemade tattoo equipment is almost impossible to clean and bloodborne illnesses can travel easily through shared needles, public safety minister Stockwell Day put a kibosh on the safer tattooing pilot in 2006.

Richard Elliott of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, says Canada is ignoring evidence. He cited a recent Canadian Medical Association Journal study showing that needle exchange programs for drug users and safer tattooing programs reduce the risk of contracting HIV in prison.

“There is little willingness — and even outright opposition — on the part of correctional systems and their political masters to implement evidence-based measures to address this serious public health crisis,” Elliott says.

The award was presented in Ottawa at a conference hosted by the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development.

Many people believe that prisoners don’t have rights while they’re in jail, Elliott says.

“In addition to being ethically and legally unsound, such a notion makes for poor public health policy: prisoner’s health is also a matter of public health,” he says.

In 1994, needle exchange programs were recommended by the Expert Committee on AIDS in Prisons, an organization set up by Correctional Services Canada. Clean needles are provided to prisoners in Germany, Spain, Switzerland and at least a half-dozen other countries.

Collins could not receive the award at the Ottawa ceremony because he’s serving a life sentence at Bath prison, near Kingston, Ontario. The award was accepted by his father, Michael Collins.

The older Collins took time to especially thank the Prisoners HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), which is in regular correspondence with his son.

“PASAN with Peter: they’ve been like a well-oiled machine,” he says. “They seem to work really well together.”

An audience of approximately 200 listened as Peter’s pre-recorded acceptance speech was piped in through speakers at the ballroom of the Delta hotel.

“While I recognize that some of my efforts my have received more visibility, I know that I’m only a small player in this ongoing human struggle and tragedy,” his message said. “I gratefully accept this honour and recognition on behalf of those silenced by resistance and a lack of action displayed by our collective governments.”

As for future activism, Elliott says harm reduction programs for prisons may end up before a judge.

“The mounting evidence of the problems of HIV and hepatitis C in Canadian prisons, and what can be done to address it, has failed to move government decision-makers to act,” Elliott says. “If the political will cannot be mustered to implement evidence-based measures to protect the health of those in the state’s custody, it may be time to put the evidence of this ongoing denial of human rights before the courts.”