Fighting the Opioid Crisis: Reconsidering the Role of Prison Needle Exchange Programs

After the tragic and untimely deaths of two inmates due to suspected fentanyl overdoses at Mountain Institution in Agassiz, B.C., the debate surrounding prison needle exchange programs (PNEPs) has reignited. The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) and Conservative MP Brad Vis are among those calling for the cancellation of PNEPs and a renewed focus on addiction treatment.

PNEPs have been implemented in Canadian prisons since 2018, following a court ruling that upheld inmates’ right to access clean needles. With nine federal institutions already offering the program, including two in B.C., the debate centers on whether PNEPs are the most effective strategy to address drug use and associated harm within correctional facilities.

Advocates argue that PNEPs provide harm reduction services and help prevent fatal overdoses. However, opponents, like UCCO and Vis, argue that providing needles to inmates contradicts the notion of contraband substances. They believe resources should be redirected towards supervised overdose prevention sites (OPS), which offer a broader range of addiction treatment options along with harm reduction services.

While PNEPs aim to address the health issue of substance use within correctional facilities, critics question the logic of conducting threat risk assessments for inmates’ good behavior while neglecting the illegal entry of drugs into prisons. The recent deaths at Mountain Institution have highlighted the shortcomings of the current approach, prompting UCCO to spearhead a petition urging the cancellation of PNEPs.

As the discussion unfolds, it is crucial to consider the potential impact of OPS on preventing fatal overdoses in a prison setting. The implementation of OPS in several federal institutions suggests a shift in focus towards comprehensive addiction treatment and harm reduction. Ultimately, the goal remains the same: reducing drug-related harm and enhancing the well-being of incarcerated individuals.


What is a prison needle exchange program (PNEP)?

A PNEP is a program designed to provide access to clean needles for inmates in correctional facilities to reduce the risk of bloodborne infections associated with drug use.

What is a supervised overdose prevention site (OPS)?

An OPS is a facility where individuals can safely consume drugs under the supervision of healthcare professionals. It also offers addiction treatment services and harm reduction support.

Why are PNEPs controversial?

The controversy surrounding PNEPs stems from the debate over the provision of clean needles to inmates, which some argue contradicts the notion of contraband substances in prisons.

What alternative solution is being proposed instead of PNEPs?

Opponents of PNEPs advocate for the prioritization of supervised overdose prevention sites (OPS) that offer a broader range of addiction treatment options and harm reduction services. They believe investing in addiction treatment is a more effective approach to addressing drug use in correctional facilities.