The Grand Valley Institution for Women will be one of two Canadian prisons to start offering needle exchange programs for its inmates.

The program, which starts next month, provides prisoners with clean needles in an attempt to limit the transmission of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases.

“The Government of Canada is committed to protecting the health and safety of all Canadians, including federal inmates, through continued access to harm reduction and evidence-based health services,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a news release announcing the initiative.

This week’s announcement was met with concern by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents 7,400 employees at 49 federal institutions.

The union’s president, Jason Godin, called the move a “dangerous turning point” and accused the federal government of turning a blind eye to drug use in prisons.

“(Correctional Service Canada) has chosen to encourage criminal activity inside the walls instead of investing in the care and treatment of inmates who are drug addicts or carriers of infectious disease,” he said in a press release.

The Correctional Service of Canada says experiences at Grand Valley and a New Brunswick men’s prison chosen to pilot the needle exchange will be used to eventually role the program out to all federal prisons across Canada.

Research from other countries shows that prison needle exchange programs can make it easier for inmates to access drug treatment programs while making no difference to the level of attacks on prison workers or other inmates.

As of 2017, 7.8 per cent of Canadian federal inmates had Hepatitis C, while 1.2 per cent had HIV. Both rates are significantly higher than those in the overall population.

It is believed that a needle exchange program could slow HIV transmission rates in prisons by 18 per cent. The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network applauded the introduction of the program, saying it is based on “solid and mounting international evidence.”

With files from The Canadian Press