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Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said the measure of a society is how it treats the least worthy of its citizens. This notion comes to mind for Toronto criminal lawyer Harpreet Saini when discussing a recent lawsuit that alleges a lack of sterile needles in prisons violates inmates’ rights.
“These are people who have flouted our laws, norms, and the basic social contract that we all abide by. They are not sympathetic,” says Saini, an associate with Hicks Adams LLP. “That is why we must try our best to treat them with the humanity and civility that we would accord to any other member of society. This is how we maintain our own humanity and sense of civility. Regardless of who they are, our sense of fairness and equality must reign supreme.”
Court documents filed this week allege a lack of clean needles violates inmates’ Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person. The suit is being filed against Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Corrections Canada Commissioner Don Head, Correctional Services of Canada and Attorney General Rob Nicolson, the Globe and Mail reports. Read Globe and Mail
For years, Canadian cities have had needle exchanges with the logic that it’s better for addicts to use clean equipment instead of sharing syringes and passing along such blood-borne diseases as Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, the Globe reports.
Ottawa has argued that providing clean needles in federal prisons makes no sense given that injection drugs are forbidden.
“Cases such as this bring to the forefront a basic problem that we as a society have to deal with,” Saini says. “Drugs harm people, our community, and should be discouraged. However, at this time their use is inevitable and hence we can minimize their harm somewhat by facilitating their safe use. Is it possible to reconcile these two potentially conflicting notions? This is the fundamental question that the courts will have to answer. Without a doubt, it is a difficult balancing act.”
Saini says the case stands out for several reasons – one being its participants.
“The significance lies in their positions as being unsympathetic members of society while at the same time being amongst the most vulnerable,” he says. “Although they are often the authors of their own misfortune, the fact is the inmates involved in this lawsuit are at the mercy of the state. Any access they have to healthcare, social services, and even basic necessities like food is in the hands of the state. If there is a failure to provide any of these things, the fault lies with the state.”
Should the inmates be given access to clean needles? Saini says the answer, while difficult, is yes.
“Drugs are devastating to our society. Nobody wants to be a drug addict. So even though we should make efforts to rehabilitate those prisoners who have drug problems, we should simultaneously try to keep them safe from the evils that come from drug use,” he says. “If the efforts to rehabilitate are fruitful, then hopefully the latter will become redundant.”