Speaking Out

  • Rss
  • Print

Mon May 17, 2010

The Righteousness of Clean Needles for Prisoners

By Sohaila Abdulali

Earlier this year, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network released a report called “Under the Skin.” The report’s authors interviewed 50 people who are or were in Canadian prisons about their experiences with drugs. I defy anyone to read it and remain unmoved. While I, as a layperson not steeped in this issue, do question some of the underlying logic, Prison Needle and Syringe Programs (PNSPs) make complete sense to me.

There’s the man who has been in 51 detox programs. The woman who describes sharpening a needle on a matchstick box so 10 people could share it. The man who talks about how his friend had an arm amputated after using an infected needle. The woman who had six months added to her sentence after she broke into the nurses’ station to steal a box of clean needles. The people whose families were broken and battered and who started using drugs before they hit puberty. The drugs available in every corner of the prison, often from the guards.

There are clean needle programs in the world outside prison, but at the moment no prisons in Canada provide clean needles to prisoners. This despite the fact that HIV and Hepatitis C rates are 10 to 20 times higher in prisons than in the general population. The ubiquity of injectable drugs, the lack of condoms, and the absence of safe needles help explain this.

The report lays out compelling human rights as well as hard-nosed economic arguments for PNSPs. Human rights because prisoners deserve health care, and economic benefits because it costs $22,000 and $29,000 (Canadian) annually to treat a single prisoner with Hepatitis C and HIV, respectively, and pennies to provide clean needles to that same prisoner. 

So why doesn’t every prison system do the correct, cheap, effective thing and provide clean needles along with rehabilitation for drug users? Could it be that we are simply cruel, judgmental and fearful? I’m afraid it might be.

People love to feel superior. Look at that junkie—who is to blame if she can’t stop using? It’s very pleasing to feel that you would never allow yourself to fall so low that you would be stabbing at your arm, your eyelid, anywhere with a vein, with a used needle in a cold cell. But you don’t know, you can’t know. If I were locked up with nowhere to go, and someone offered me sweet release in the form of temporary oblivion, I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t grab it. 

Research has indicated that clean needle programs work and do not lead to more drug use. There is simply no excuse, beyond our own squeamishness and hardheartedness, for not implementing them. There is, however, the question of how one justifies enabling people to break the law.

If this report had been written by a non-legal NGO, I would stop here and heartily endorse it. However, a group of lawyers wrote it. Clean needles make sense to me as a layperson, but drug use is illegal, and how does a group of lawyers justify endorsing taxpayer funds to pay for aiding and abetting a crime? Do they believe that drug use should be decriminalized? Is their position supporting PNSPs based on thinking that drug use is inevitable? I’m genuinely curious about this. I don’t know enough about the subject to have a rock-solid opinion on it — but if my heart says yes, it is terrible not to protect prisoners from further harm, my head says that this position leads inevitably to some difficult questions.

Of this I can speak to no one, as you
can’t speak of the crows and the terrible thoughts
coming out of the woods like old men in gray suits.
Each night we are exchanged
for something much worse than we imagined,
which is why late in the day
I go out to the woods where the poplars are greasy
and the oaks are against me
and lie down across the grain of the mountain cursing,
trying to tear the itch off my hands.

Charlie Smith, “Of This I Speak To No One”