(Ottawa, June 16, 2008) – A federal prisoner and health activist is the recipient of the 2008 Canadian Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Human Rights Watch announced today. The award, which recognizes outstanding individuals and organizations that protect the rights and dignity of people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS, will be presented at a public reception and ceremony in Ottawa on June 16.

As a peer health counsellor, Peter Collins has been conducting HIV-prevention education behind bars since the late 1980s. His efforts have also included providing support to prisoners living with HIV and hepatitis C, and advocating for better health care and HIV prevention services – including harm-reduction measures – in prisons. Collins is currently serving his sentence at Bath Institution, a medium-security federal prison near Kingston, Ontario that houses more than 300 male prisoners.

“Today’s award not only recognizes one person’s efforts to make a difference in stopping this epidemic, but also highlights how much still needs to be done to ensure prisoners’ basic human right to protect themselves against HIV and hepatitis C,” said Richard Elliott, executive director of the Legal Network. “One immediate priority is to reinstate the safer tattooing program; another is for Canadian prisons finally to implement needle-exchange programs.”

Prisoners throughout Canada still have no access to clean needles. Studies in Canada and elsewhere report much higher levels of HIV and hepatitis C infection among prisoners than among the population as a whole, and that sharing of equipment, including makeshift tools to inject drugs, is common in prisons. The World Health Organization and the Ontario and Canadian Medical Associations, among others, have recommended that needle-exchange programs be implemented in prison settings. The Public Health Agency of Canada recently reviewed the evidence for Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and concluded such programs make sense as a public health measure.

“A prison sentence should not result in infection with a potentially fatal disease,” said Elliott. “Needle-exchange programs have worked very successfully for years in prisons in other countries, yet the federal government has categorically refused to act, rejecting the recommendations of medical experts, UN agencies and its own Public Health Agency.”

“Peter has been involved in fighting for the health and human rights of prisoners, including access to harm-reduction programs, for most of his 25 years in prison,” said Giselle Dias of the Prisoners’ HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), the community-based organization that nominated Collins for this year’s award. “We’re very pleased that his work has been recognized, and hope that it raises awareness of how often prisoners’ health is disregarded and their human rights ignored.”

While Collins’s advocacy has often put him at odds with prison authorities, his expertise as a peer educator on the inside has also helped the prison system take positive steps, such as the ground-breaking “safer tattooing” pilot project initiated by CSC in six institutions after its surveys showed many prisoners get tattoos while incarcerated. That pilot project was later cancelled by Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day in December 2006 before the first-year evaluation was complete.

“Prisoners have the right to adequate health services, but their access to such services is unreasonably restricted by prison authorities,” said Rebecca Schleifer, Advocate for the HIV/AIDS Program at Human Rights Watch. “Denying prisoners access to HIV prevention measures such as needle exchange programs that are available outside prisons not only ignores good public health practice but it also violates basic human rights standards.”

Human Rights Watch Press release