A former federal inmate and four AIDS prevention organizations are suing the federal government for failing to provide needle and syringe exchange programs inside Canadian prisons.

The lawsuit, which is being filed today in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, claims the government is violating the rights of inmates under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by failing to provide such programs inside prisons.

But instead of seeking a monetary settlement, the plaintiffs are asking for what’s called a supervisory or structural injunction, according to lawyer Douglas Elliott. He called it a rare ruling in which a judge could order the government to set up needle exchange programs in prisons across Canada.

“The most important thing is to get a good program in place that would protect people in the future,” Elliott told CBC News.

The suit is being served today against Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, Attorney General Rob Nicholson and Don Head, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). The application claims the government is failing to protect the health of prisoners and the public health of Canadians by not providing access to the same kind of needle and syringe exchange programs that have been offered to drug users in communities across Canada for more than 20 years.

The lawsuit is being filed jointly by the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network, Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), an AIDS information group endorsed by Canada's Public Health Agency (CATIE) and the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) a coalition that provides support and advocacy for aboriginal people living with AIDS.

In the past decade, studies by the government and other groups have shown HIV and hepatitis C rates are 10 to 30 times higher in Canadian prisons than elsewhere in the country. The rates are even higher among women and aboriginal inmates.

Several groups, including the government’s own officials, have recommended setting up needle exchanges in prisons, but the government has refused.

Similar programs are already operating in parts of Britain, Europe and Iran.

'Clear case of discrimination'

"Prison health is public health," said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, a lawyer and senior policy analyst for the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network, one of the groups launching the lawsuit.

"Over 90 per cent of people in prison are going to be back in the community and these people have family and friends who are going to be affected or infected with HIV and hepatitis C as a result of CSC’s non-provision of needle exchange and syringe programs," he said.

Chu called this "a clear case of discrimination" because drug users outside prison have access to needle exchange while inmates don’t.

The federal government maintains a "zero tolerance" policy for drugs in prison and in recent years has spent millions of dollars to interdict drugs going into institutions with the use of tough electronic surveillance equipment and dogs that can detect drugs.

At the same time, the prison system does provide inmates access to condoms and bleach kits to clean their needles in an effort to prevent disease. But the government has consistently rejected any plan to provide clean needles to prisoners.

Steven Simmons is a former inmate who contracted hepatitis C while incarcerated at Warkworth Institution in eastern Ontario between 1998 and 2010. He’s one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“When I was in prison, I would see people passing one homemade needle around and sharpening it with matchbooks. The needle would be dirty and held together with hot glue,” Simons said. “I watched people shove a dull needle to try to penetrate their skin, creating craters, abscesses and disfigurements,” he said.

The federal government has yet to respond to the suit. Elliott says given the complexity of the issue, he doesn’t expect the case will go before a judge until sometime next year.

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