02/13/2016 04:48 EST | Updated 02/13/2017 05:12 EST

Canadian Prisons Need Clean Needle And Syringe Program: Experts

OTTAWA — Proponents of prison-based needle and syringe programs say the Liberal government should implement measures to address rates of HIV and hepatitis C estimated to be 10 to 30 times higher than in the general population.

Emily van der Meulen of Ryerson University, lead author of a recent study, says she hopes the government will review evidence on the effectiveness of programs that have operated in Switzerland for more than 20 years.

She says the issue is about both health and human rights. 

Sandra Ka Hon Chu of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network says Canada lags behind on implementing such programs, noting there are resources available to put recommendations into practice.

A former prisoner, along with organizations including the HIV/AIDS legal network, filed a lawsuit against the government in 2012 because it did not make needles and syringes available in prison to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the government cannot comment on the issue now due to the ongoing litigation, but noted the government is committed to implementing evidence-based policies.


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  • Norway
    Junge, Heiko/AFP/Getty Images
    Norway has one of the lowest re-conviction rates in Europe, at 20%, and 71 prisoners for each 100,000 population, roughly half the UK total.

    Dubbed the "world's most human prison system" it operates on the principle that custodial sentences restrict the freedom of movement only - and not prisoners' other rights.

    And there's an intense focus on rehabilitation. "Progression through a sentence should be aimed as much as possible at returning to the community," the government says.

    One prison, Halgen in the north of the country, has attracted international media attention due to its design - likened to university halls by some media - as well as its ability to serve the prison system's priorities.

    At Halgen Prison, prisoners:
    • are able to cook meals for themselves
    • have access to ensuite facilities
    • can work in retail stores and other jobs
    • earn points to spend on site
    • have access to scenic running routes within landscaped, secure grounds
    • have large windows with plenty of natural light

    However, Norway's system became so overcrowded last year it sent 300 prisoners to the Netherlands.
  • Netherlands
    © Catchlight Visual Services / Alamy
    The Netherlands has just 69 prisoners per 100,000 population and has enough capacity in its prisons to accommodate criminals from other countries.

    Routines exist to rehabilitate "persistent offenders", and those who are motivated can develop skills related to:
    • self care and hygiene;
    • labour;
    • education;
    • spending of leisure time;
    • financial administration;
    • unsupervised settling; and
    • social attitude

    However, while it pursues many policies aimed at rehabilitation of inmates, some of these have been severely curtailed in recent years.

    Single-use cells are no longer mandatory, while the amount of hours devoted to activities each week reduced still further.

    Nonetheless in 2013, it was reported that declining crime rates in the Netherlands meant that although the country has the capacity for 14,000 prisoners, there were only 12,000 detainees.
  • Denmark
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    Denmark has a reconviction rate of 29% -- as opposed to England & Wales' 49% -- and it has 61 prisoners per 100,000 citizens - far fewer than the UK.

    The number of women guards in Danish prisons has been noted as having a calming effect on majority male inmates. Women are more likely to reduce tensions, and prisoners are more likely to make an effort to talk to them - more so than with their male counterparts.

    Annette Esdorf, deputy director general of the prison and probation service in Denmark, explained the philosophy to the BBC:

    "We make an effort to keep crime down by treating the prisoners in the best way. We have a rather humane regime, not because of the prisoners, but because we think it works better this way.

    "Our prison regime is based on normalisation, a principle of openness and responsibility, because we think it's the best way of avoiding reconviction."
  • Sweden
    JONATHAN NACKSTRAND via Getty Images
    Sweden has a remarkably low prison population rate at just 55 per 100,000 citizens.

    "Sweden's remarkable prison system has done what the U.S. won't even consider," reported last year, stating, "prisons in Nordic countries are designed to treat (prisoners) as people with psychosocial needs that are to be carefully attended to."

    It is this philosophy which guides Sweden's correctional system.

    Director-general Nils Öberg told the Guardian: "It has to do with whether you decide to use prison as your first option or as a last resort, and what you want your probation system to achieve.

    "Some people have to be incarcerated, but it has to be a goal to get them back out into society in better shape than they were when they came in."

    Rather than "static security" roles, guards in Swedish prisons adopt "dynamic security" - fostering interrelationships between staff and inmates for the benefit of rehabilitation and safety.
  • Germany
    © imagebroker / Alamy
    Unlike many prisons across the world, Germany has placed an emphasis on pleasing decoration and home comforts - even those as simple as ceramic toilets and wash basins, opposed to the expected stainless steel.

    It has roughly half the prison population of the UK, at 76 inmates per 100,000 citizens.

    On a visit to a German prison alongside US justice officials, Vice News found: "Most prisoners have knives and forks in their cells. Though the prisoners cannot access the internet, they have telephones in their rooms, and they can call anyone—even the media."

    While reconviction rates are around 48%, special efforts are made to reintroduce offenders into society - aided by German culture.