Canadian Prison Safe Consumption Site Sparks Heated Harm Reduction Debate

    Safe consumption spaces and sterile syringe programs are major rallying points for the harm reduction movement. But in an unlikely standoff, Canada’s youngest overdose prevention site (OPS), as they are known there, is facing criticism from Canadian health and human rights organizations, while being promoted by a law enforcement union.

    That’s because the OPS, which launched on June 24, is located in Drumheller Institution, a medium-security prison in Alberta. The HIV/AIDS Legal Network has expressed concern that the site could risk incarcerated clients’ confidentiality.

    “Prisoners must trust staff and believe that they can access the service confidentially, without exposing their drug use—a highly stigmatized and criminalized activity—to other prisoners and staff,” said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of research and advocacy for the Legal Network, implying that prisoners could face additional criminal charges if they bring their own drugs to the OPS. “This trust and confidentiality simply does not exist within the current prison environment and the logistics of maintaining prisoners’ confidentiality in the context of a supervised injection site are hard to fathom,” she said in a statement.

    In contrast, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers argues that the OPS will make conditions safer for both prisoners and correctional officers. “We have already witnessed the abuse of this program when an authorized needle was found in the cell of an inmate who was not authorized to have it, said Jeff Wilkins, the national president of the union. “When inmates share the needles, disease can spread.”

    Another union representative also told CBC Information Morning that incarcerated people have threatened that “[a needle] would be the first thing that they would use against a correctional officer.” Prison syringe programs have burdened correctional officers with “keeping track of the needles in our populations,” he added, and that “is not our job.” And the Legal Network agrees with the Union on this.

    While the Legal Network is advocating for syringe programs in places like Drumheller Institution— which has never had one—they are also recognizing that issues with the current model exist. “[Prison needle exchange programs] provide a health service to prisoners that must be run solely by the health care staff,” stated Chu. But the Legal Network holds that problems with the implementation of these programs should not hinder their refinement. 

    The Legal Network is a strong supporter of OPS across Canada, but finds the unique circumstances of those incarcerated to be prohibitive.

    Despite the controversy, the debate over harm reduction for incarcerated people is a welcome one—particularly from the perspective of the US, where most people in jails and prisons are denied methadone and buprenorphine, let alone sterile syringes and safe consumption spaces.

    Photograph of Bowden Institution by Correctional Services Canada via Twitter

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