2 min

‘I got HIV while in jail,’ ex-inmates say

Needle sharing is a 'reality' until feds start a clean-gear program

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network's report features illustrations based on photos of participants. See more at Credit: Kristin Steenstra illustration

Lenita Sparks, 47, recounts the first time she used a needle, while serving a three-year sentence for fraud.

“The first time I ever shot drugs was at Kingston [Penitentiary for Women],” she says. “I shot speed. I used somebody’s needle to shoot it. About 10 of us used the same needle.”
Kate and Gordon (not their real names) became HIV positive while serving their respective sentences in federal institutions. Both are convinced they contracted HIV from dirty needles. 
“I am 100 percent sure I got infected from sharing used needles,” says Kate.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I was infected with HIV from using an infected needle,” Gordon says.
Their stories, and others, paint a grim picture of the state of harm reduction in Canadian prisons. In early February, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network released Under the Skin, a candid report on drug use and needle sharing in prisons. 
The report includes the personal testimonies of 50 former and current inmates in Canada’s correctional institutions. 
Under the Skin was written by senior policy analyst for the Legal Network, Sandra Ka Hon Chu, with help from fellow staff members and various HIV/AIDS organizations.
With drug use common in jails, the scarcity of syringes makes IV drug users more prone to needle sharing — a “principal factor” in higher rates of HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) in Canadian prisons. (HIV and HCV prevalence in prisons is “10 and 20 times the estimated prevalence in Canada,” according to the report). 
The authors of Under the Skin call for Prison Needle Syringe Programs (PNSPs), which would provide clean needles to IV drug users in prison.
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has never implemented such a program in a Canadian correctional institution, citing their zero-tolerance policy on drugs in prison.
When asked to comment on the potential of PNSPs being implemented in Canadian prisons, Josée Bellemare, on behalf of Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq, reiterated the Government’s mandate of eliminating drugs in prison. 
“Our government cares about preventing people, especially our young people, from becoming drug addicts in the first place,” she tells Xtra. ”That’s why we’re putting drug dealers in jail: so that our children are safe.” 
Richard Elliot, executive director of the Legal Network, says clean-needle programs are “absolutely critical” in preventing the spread of HIV and HCV. 
“They say it is not their policy to introduce these things, and that’s not good enough,” he urges. “They really need to justify why they are taking this position.”
Jim Motherall, who spent a total of 32 years behind bars, agrees with Elliot’s view. He says government arguments against PNSPs are “ridiculous” since drug use in prisons is simply a reality. 
“We have large numbers of prisoners who suffer from addiction,” he says. “They’re going to get the drug into them anyway they have to.”
In 2006, Canadian prison officials flirted with PNSPs. At their request, the Public Health Agency of Canada compiled a report on the effectiveness and potential risks of PNSPs, but the recommendations contained in Public Health’s report were never implemented.
Corrections representatives declined to comment for this story.