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What if prison needles were a thing of the past?

Needles loom large as a major culprit in the spread of infectious diseases, but advances in needleless injection for immunization day may lower the threat and reduce costs


PharmaJet’s needle-less injection technology can reduce the prevalence of contraband needles, which will cut down on drug use and the spread of disease. (Image via PharmaJet)

By Carol McKinley

Hypodermic needles are considered premium contraband in prison. There are reports they sell for as much as one hundred dollars a syringe, and that a single needle can be used one hundred times by as many as two hundred inmates. Sometimes a so-called “spike” can last for months at a time behind the wire, being passed back and forth by prison junkies. They are such a valuable item that some prisoners have admitted to renting them out to others. Over time, the needle gets increasingly rusty and bent. Undaunted, prisoner after prisoner fills those needles with their own drugs and passes the spike along.

Needles loom large as a major culprit in the spread of infectious diseases. Cases of HIV and Hepatitis C can be twenty times higher behind bars than in the general population.

Obviously, needles also make great weapons. They are a safety hazard to corrections personnel who are often “stuck” while conducting cell searches.

Where do inmates get them? For starters, on immunization day — when hundreds of needles are used — desperate inmates find ways to confiscate the ones that have been thrown away. And of course, they get them from the same place they get the rest of their contraband — from correctional officers, visitors, volunteers, and staff.

No More Needles
But what if the threat posed by prison needles was a thing of the past? That is the dream of a company called PharmaJet, which is introducing an innovative needleless injection to prisons across the country.

The technology is so new, many corrections officials have never heard of it.

PharmaJet’s device works like a squirt gun. It delivers medication with a high-pressure stream of vaccine which penetrates the skin. The injector is pressed into an arm or leg with a quick “thump,” and the process is over in a third of a second. There is reportedly no pain, and clearly there is no needle to dispose of.

PharmaJet can also be much less expensive than a common syringe injection because it uses less medicine per patient with the same results. Clinical trials are underway using a reduced dose which can potentially save as much as eight percent of the vaccine. When you’re talking about 2.3 million people in the prison system nationwide, these savings can be staggering.

This year, hundreds of prisoners whose facilities opted to try the no-needle approach were led in shackles to the medical room for annual flu shots. Once there, they got a big surprise. Instead of a stick in the arm, they received a thump from this strange PharmaJet contraption. A line of curious criminals waited outside the door for a report from their cohorts, who exited rubbing their arms, clowning around as if they were in pain. But they weren’t. The needleless injection got rave reviews from even the most hard-core patients.

Big and Bad and Afraid of Needles
“Some of the biggest, baddest criminals in jail are afraid of needles!” says retired Supermax Warden Bob Hood. He has been so impressed with the potential health and safety benefits the PharmaJet system can bring to America’s jails that he is now consulting for the company on prison issues, and often travels with the company’s medical team for immunization sessions with inmates.

“One huge guy lifted his shirt to show us he had seven bullet wounds to his chest. But the guy said...’I still don’t like needles!’” Hood saw many prisoners who had been introduced to the “squirt gun” system walk away happy. “This means inmates will be more likely to get shots, which means less disease in prison. And think of the advantage to public health. Fewer felons will re-enter society infected with TB, Hepatitis, and AIDS.”

The device is currently being tested at CCA-run Central Arizona Detention Center, where officials told Corrections1 it’s too soon to comment on the success of the system.

PharmaJet is not only being introduced in prisons. It has been FDA-approved and is already being used, in collaboration with governments and vaccine makers, in at least eight countries.

This year, PharmaJet’s developers were laureates of the prestigious international “Tech Award,” which honors the most innovative technology being used to solve some of the most critical problems facing the planet.

In the world’s prisons, fewer needles means less chance for contraband, better safety for prison employees and better health for inmates, officers, and citizens outside the walls.

As one warden put it, “If we can get needles out of prison, it’ll be the best thing to happen to corrections in a long time. It’s one less thing we have to worry about.”

Carol McKinley covers general corrections topics for Corrections1. She has been a national reporter for thirteen years, working first for Fox News Channel out of their Denver Bureau, and now for HDNet as a contributor for their news magazine “World Report.” In the past few years, she has ventured into print reporting, covering various corrections-related subjects, including prison industries, women’s issues and juvenile programs. For HDNet, she has produced documentaries focusing a myriad of subjects, including the current wars, on the rise of American militia movements and polygamy. While with FNC, McKinley covered and broke stories on JonBenet Ramsey, Columbine, the Oklahoma City Bombing and the Elizabeth Smart investigation.

Before she went “national”, she was the morning reporter for radio station KOA in Denver, Colorado, where she worked a daily news beat. For the past year, she has done contract work with the Department of Homeland Security teaching first responders how to deal the media in a crisis. The mother of four grown children, she lives in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and her Boston Terrier, Bette Davis.