Injecting compassion for drug addicts in prison

Photo credit: Rachelle Tjahyana

Injustices within prisons are disturbing, though not often thought of. The rights of those who bend or break the laws forced upon them are often forcefully disregarded, and inmates’ physical and emotional health is not a priority. Correctional Services Canada’s value statement conveys a message of fairness, encouragement and rehabilitation opposed to the punitive mindset, which appears to be the reality.

Recently in Regina, a 21-year-old woman named Breanna Kannick passed away in her prison cell as a result of drug withdrawal. The loss of her life left her family reeling in the aftermath, and questioning the role the correction facility played in her death.

Upon arrival to the institution, there is an initial health inspection, but such is done by facility employees, without a doctor or nurse present. Perhaps with a more thorough inspection a dependency would be legitimized and inmates could have easier access to assistance. On the night of Kannick’s death, she was vomiting and shouting for help from her cell. A combination of greater empathic responses from prison employees, proper health examinations, and care could have saved Kannick’s life.

The denial of proper treatment for an addict while incarcerated seems more based on misplaced moral superiority rather than good policy or science-based evidence. Sadly, addiction has always been an issue that prompts some to hop upon their moral high horse, and is why it is always difficult to have an adult discussion about drug use and harm reduction.

Hysteria and moral panic created by conservatives and knee jerk reactionaries is difficult to counter.

In popular discourse on the topic, ideological knee jerk reactions seem to prevail. Though looking at the case of Insite, a safe injection site here in the Lower Mainland, Dr. Thomas Kerr, director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence (BC-CfE) in HIV/AIDS, and Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC-CfE, discuss in The Vancouver Sun the success of Insite, noting that “sadly, ideological debate about harm reduction continues, despite widespread agreement among health authorities [. . .] that such programs are essential to the fight against [. . .] drug-related harms.”

It’s clear that drug addicts should not only receive fair and humane treatment in prison, but also that it would actually be of benefit to follow harm reduction inside Canada’s prisons. However, the hysteria and moral panic created by conservatives and knee jerk reactionaries is difficult to counter.

As Kerr and Montaner also note that the discourse on prison injustice is still being likened to past debates about cigarette smoking and global warming. Critics continue to bombard offenses against scientists while misrepresenting research along the way.

It seems a little ignorance goes a long way. Yet when it comes to public policy, science and compassion should always trump incomprehension and vengeance.