3 min

Out of sight, out of rights?

HIV-infection rates soar in Canada's prisons

A prison sentence isn’t supposed to be easy. But nor is it supposed to be a death sentence, say those taking part in Prisoners’ Justice Day on Wed, Aug 10.

“I’ve heard way too many stories about people dying inside,” says Claire Checkland, programs consultant with the Canadian AIDS Society and the coordinator of the Prison Networking Group, a coalition of AIDS service organizations working with prisoners.

Prisoners’ Justice Day takes aim at violence in prison, guard brutality and unsafe conditions, but of primary concern are the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infections in institutions, and the treatment of transsexual and transgendered prisoners.

Queer men experience a higher risk of sexual assault while in prison, as do transgendered and transsexual women, particularly if they’ve been stuck in a men’s prison. Correctional Services Canada (CSC), the organization in charge of federal prisons, only recognizes postoperative transsexuals as being their assumed gender.

“The CSC’s policy is based on genitals,” says McCollum. “If you haven’t had gender reassignment surgery below the waist, you’re still considered a man. They often do not even have access to their hormone treatments.”

Connor McCollum, a member of the Prisoners’ Justice Action Committee and the national hepatitis C coordinator for the Prisoners’ HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), says the rates of infection for prisoners are sky-high.

“The rate for HIV is between 10 and 40 times higher than the general population,” says McCollum. “For hepatitis C it’s between 40 and 70 percent higher.”

For example, according to statistics from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, in 2000 at the Edmonton Institute For Women approximately 75 percent of the prisoners were known to have hepatitis C.

The major means of transmission in prison are through unsafe needles, unsafe tattooing and unsafe sex. McCollum says CSC’s policies work against the safety of prisoners.

He says groups like PASAN can have a hard time even getting their printed material into prisons. He also says the CSC has been unwilling to institute needle exchange programs or anonymous testing, makes entry to addiction treatment programs difficult and has restricted access even to bleach or condoms, and sometimes to HIV medication.

“I’ve heard of many instances where, when bleach is available, it’s so watered down that inmates can drink it and have nothing happen.”

McCollum says that the CSC’s zero tolerance policy toward drugs, which involves testing prisoners, has made matters even worse. He says the policy has led many prisoners to switch from marijuana to harder drugs.

“THC [the active ingredient in marijuana] stays in your system much longer,” explains McCollum. “Many prisoners have switched to heroin and cocaine which are injected. A lot of inmates are starting to use needles in prison. It’s their first exposure to the needle.”

McCollum also says that, despite prisons being mandated to provide condoms and dental dams to inmates, they are still not readily accessible, a problem made worse by the fact that sex in jail is against the rules.

“Having sex is an institutional offence,” says McCollum. “In many prisons, you have to go to a guard and say, ‘I need a condom and lube.’ It’s like you’re saying, ‘I’m going to break the rules.'”

Checkland says such policies are damaging to society at large.

“A lot of these people are going to be coming back into the community. And a lot of women don’t know what their partners are up to in prison.”

Other sexual practices can also increase the risk of infection.

“Someone will fuck someone’s armpit,” says McCollum. “You’ll get a lot of chafing, raw skin and sores.”

Lacking professional and sterile equipment, prisoners are also at risk of infection from tattooing. McCollum says the CSC has a safe tattooing pilot project in the works, but he doesn’t know when the project will actually start.

Glenn Betteridge of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network says that many advocacy groups have become disillusioned in their dealings with CSC.

“Back in 2003 a number of community groups said, ‘We’re not providing consultations for consultations’ sake.’ It was just so the CSC could say they consulted.”

In fact, Betteridge says the best way to achieve change is through lawsuits, although he hopes that won’t be necessary in order to have the needle exchange programs instituted.

McCollum says the lack of political support from the general public is a big impediment to improving prison conditions.

“There’s a feeling that when someone goes to prison they forfeit not just their freedom but their human rights.”

Prisoners’ Justice Day aims to increase public awareness of the problems in the correction system. The day was inspired by two deaths of prisoners in segregation at Ontario’s Millhaven Prison, a suicide in 1974 and a death from a heart condition in 1976.

In Toronto, the day will be marked by an all-day information event at Holy Trinity Church, behind the Eaton Centre, and a vigil beginning at 6:30pm at the Don Jail, featuring speakers and performers.