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HIV/AIDS lecture highlights problems in prison

by Archives January 30, 2002

In a conference entitled “Le VIH se porte bien dans nos prisons” at Concordia Thursday night the speakers stressed the need for sterile needles, condoms and bleach to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus in Canada’s prisons.
The speakers included: Ralf JYrgens, Michael Linhart, Gaston Godin and Thierry Pinet.
The conference was the last of a four-part community lecture series on HIV and AIDS offered in conjunction with the 6 credit AIDS class as well as the 3 credit Internet course offered at Concordia.
In addition to weekly lectures, students enrolled in the course attend four conferences dealing with modes of transmission and different high-risk groups. The community lecture series is in its ninth season.
JYrgens, founder of The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Law professor at McGill, said correctional facilities in Quebec have the highest number of inmates with HIV or AIDS in Canada. “That’s one out of every thirty inmates,” he said, “which is fifty to sixty times higher than in the general population.”
The reason for this is the high-risk behaviour that goes on within prison walls, he said. JYrgens stated that over 70 per cent of men incarcerated in Quebec use intravenous drugs while serving out their sentences.
The vast majority share their needles. He recommended that sterile needle exchange programs be instituted in the nation’s prisons, and said such programs in Europe have been highly successful.
In the meantime, he proposed inmates have access to bleach so they can clean needles themselves. He also recommended that condoms should be more readily available to inmates, as not all facilities provide them.
“A prison sentence should not be accompanied by a death sentence of AIDS,” he concluded.
Michael Linhart is an ex-con who contracted AIDS while serving out a twelve-year sentence in a federal prison in Millhaven, Ontario. He is now co-ordinator of the B.C. Persons With AIDS Society.
“If you’re (HIV) positive in prison, you feel like a pariah,” he said, “There’s a lot of ignorance about the virus in jail.”
Linhart criticized the correctional system for its treatment of HIV positive inmates. He says the vitamins and nutritional supplements that are often taken in conjunction with “the cocktail” (AIDS medications) are not available for prisoners.
“They call it ‘special treatment,'” he said. Linhart said inmates go without regular check-ups and physicals, which can detect HIV or AIDS as well as the opportunistic infections that often accompany them.
“If they don’t have enough staff to take you to your appointment, that’s too bad, and you might not see a doctor for months,” he added.
To remedy this, Linhart recommended that Corrections Canada invest in Telemedicine, a technology whereby rural doctors (who are generally closer to prisons) can communicate with specialists over the Internet while they examine inmates. He said this would give the patient the best care possible while eliminating the transportation problem. He added that sterile needles were “a necessity for inmates.”
Gaston Godin, a professor at Laval Univeristy in Quebec City, presented the results of a study he conducted that researched the opinions of prison staff concerning AIDS prevention in prisons.
He found that although 76.8 per cent of the guards had taken an AIDS course, only 9.4 per cent supported sterile needle programs. Godin said this was due to fears that needles could be used as weapons and because guards see themselves as enforcers of prison regulations.
Since taking drugs is illegal and is against the rules in prison, guards were unlikely to favour any needle exchange program.
The study also found that most guards were in favour of providing condoms and many said bleach should be available for tattoo needles.
Thierry Pinet, a social worker in a Sherbrooke detention centre, said drugs, sex, tattoos and piercings are a part of prison culture, and stressed that correctional facilities should provide safer ways for inmates to engage in these activities.
Pinet said all his institution provided to prevent the spread of AIDS is a vial of bleach and some rubber gloves, which he stated is not enough.
“Every inmate has someone who loves them and they have a right to their health,” said Linhart.

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