Everyone is entitled to human rights. People do not surrender those rights when they enter prison. The Government of Canada has a legal obligation to protect and promote health, including the health of people in prison — and this includes taking measures to prevent the spread of needless infection in prison.

Despite the overwhelming evidence demonstrating the benefits and effectiveness of prison needle and syringe programs (PNSPs) in preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) in prisons, prison authorities in Canada have refused to implement this important harm reduction measure. For many years, implementing such programs has proven something that successive federal governments have been unwilling to do. After years of pleading, it is time to turn to our courts to protect both public health and the right to health of Canadian prisoners.

About the Lawsuit

On September 25, 2012, Steven Simons, a former prisoner, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), CATIE and the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) launched a lawsuit against the Government of Canada over its failure to make sterile injection equipment available to federal prisoners and prevent the spread of HIV and HCV in Canadian federal prisons. With the input of expert witnesses from Canada and beyond, and armed with many of the legal arguments outlined in Clean Switch: The Case for Prison-Based Needle and Syringe Programs, the goal of this lawsuit is to ensure prisoners' access to a key tool in HIV and HCV prevention — and to establish a legal precedent that will be useful in other jurisdictions seeking to ensure the same.

Among the evidence the Legal Network will bring forward are affidavits and testimonials from 50 current or former federal prisoners from throughout Canada, documenting first-hand accounts of drug use and needle sharing inside prisons. These perspectives provide concrete evidence of the harm prisoners experience when they are denied health services that other citizens can access.  A compilation of these affidavits can be found in Under the Skin: A People’s Case for Prison Needle and Syringe Programs

Notice of Application to Ontario Superior Court of Justice

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Why now?

Despite more than 20 years of research and advocacy for PNSPs, resistance from correctional authorities and successive federal governments remains commonplace. Indeed, many institutions have invested significant resources in anti-drug measures with little to show for it: rates of drug use remain steady, while rates of HIV and HCV are many times higher behind bars.

The case for PNSPs has never been more pressing. In 2012, Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, was passed in Parliament. This legislation will lead to a swollen prison system and more and more people incarcerated for minor drug offenses. Overcrowding, heightened violence and an increase in the number of people using drugs in prison are inevitable outcomes. Without the introduction of PNSPs in Canada’s federal prison system, HIV and HCV infection rates in prison are guaranteed to skyrocket.

But this lawsuit is not just about protecting the health of prisoners. Over 90% of Canadian prisoners are eventually released back into their communities after serving relatively short sentences and possibly after acquiring HIV or HCV in prison from sharing needles and syringes. The cost of PNSPs also pales in comparison to the cost of treating a person living with HIV and/or HCV, estimated at a minimum of $29,000 per year and $22,000 respectively. In a time of increasing fiscal constraints, it is far more cost-effective to provide people in prison with sterile needles and syringes than to treat needless HIV or HCV infections.

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Who is involved?

The applicant, Steven Simons, was incarcerated in Warkworth Institution from 1998 to 2010, where he was infected with hepatitis C when a fellow prisoner used his injection equipment. In describing his incarceration, Simons says, I want to be involved in this case to save lives and prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV.”

The case will be litigated by Lori Stoltz of Morris + Stoltz + Evans LLP and R. Douglas Elliott of Cambridge LLP. The Legal Network has collaborated closely with a number of activists, harm reduction advocates and community-based organizations, including the organizational co-applicants, to ensure community engagement around this ground-breaking litigation.

To learn more about how you can get involved in the campaign for prison health and PNSPs, click here.

UPdate (Oct 2017): open letter and brief to prime minister trudeau and cabinet ministers

On October 27, 2017 the Legal Network wrote to Prime Minister Trudeau and other ministers in the federal cabinet on behalf of the co-applicants. You can read the letter and the documents contained in the brief by clicking the links below:

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Prisons need a needle exchange. There are a lot of people who come in, and haven’t done drugs before, and become addicted inside… They come out with a HIV or hepatitis C infection…If they had needle exchanges in institutions a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of people’s lives.”