09/25/2012 01:04 EDT | Updated 11/25/2012 05:12 EST

Ex-convict, HIV/AIDS advocacy groups ask court for prison needle exchanges

OTTAWA - A former prisoner infected with hepatitis C is suing the federal government over its refusal to allow clean-needle exchanges inside prisons.

Steven Simons, who served 12 years behind bars, has the backing of several HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations in a suit that names Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, the Correctional Service of Canada and its commissioner.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, argues the government has arbitrarily disregarded the health evidence on needle exchanges in prisons.

"The absolute prohibition on sterile injection equipment is arbitrary, over broad and grossly disproportionate to the legitimate objective of curtailing the use of illicit drugs within the correctional system," says the 13-page application.

It says the policy disproportionately jeopardizes the liberty and health of the disabled — in this case people suffering from drug addiction.

And it wants a court injunction forcing the creation of a needle exchange program in Canada's prisons.

Toews and his officials quickly dismissed the lawsuit, while stating for the record that they could not comment on a specific case before the courts.

"Our government has a zero tolerance policy for drugs in our institutions," Toews told the House of Commons in response to a friendly Conservative question on the lawsuit.

"That is why we made a commitment during the last election to develop drug-free prisons. Drug use among prisoners dramatically reduces their chances of successful rehabilitation."

His spokeswoman, Julie Carmichael, had earlier said by email that "our government will never consider putting weapons, such as needles, in the hands of potentially violent prisoners."

The lawsuit makes the case that drugs remain prevalent in Canadian prisons and that authorities have acknowledged they cannot completely eliminate prisoner drug abuse.

Moreover, prisons in other jurisdictions have been providing clean needles since 1992 and "the available evidence indicates that such programs can operate consistently with interdiction against drug use in prisons," it says.

The application states government policy ignores years of study and experience and that the correctional service and Public Safety Canada "have not provided any evidence on which they claim to base this decision, simply asserting that it is their policy to approach the problems posed by drugs in prisons with 'zero tolerance' for drugs."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the government policy follows the same pattern as Insite, the safe injection site in Vancouver that the Harper government tried to shut down. The Supreme Court of Canada — citing Insite's health benefits — ruled unanimously last year that using drug laws to close the facility would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"As the Supreme Court reminded us in the Insite case, we've got to make these decisions based on evidence and not based on superstition," said Mulcair.

"I think we have to protect human lives, whether it be the people who are working in those prisons who come in contact with those prisoners or otherwise."

In a news release, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network says Canada's prison population faces HIV rates 10 times the national average, and hepatitis C infections that are 30 times the national average.

The cost of treating these prisoners then falls to taxpayers, and the public bears the cost of further infections once prisoners serve their sentences and are released, said the release.

"Prison health is public health," said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, the legal network's senior policy analyst.

The advocacy group claims the latest Conservative omnibus crime bill passed last spring will only make matters worse "as more and more people are incarcerated for non-violent drug offences."