Fentanyl crisis growing in Alberta prisons, exposing guards: ‘It’s very scary’

In the last several weeks, a number of prison guards across the Prairies have been exposed to fentanyl during searches or while treating inmates.

As communities across Canada sound the alarm over the extremely dangerous drug, the union representing correctional officers is doing the same.

“Correctional officers put their lives on the line every day, much like police officers do on the street,” said Jason Godin, the national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

READ MORE: Alberta gives firefighters access to naloxone kits as fentanyl overdose deaths rise 

“It’s very scary considering we do risk our lives on a daily basis and … that risk is now compounded by a drug that is very, very potent and very dangerous to inmates and staff.

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Last Friday, two prison guards in Stony Mountain, Man. were exposed to fentanyl. A couple of weeks ago, six guards in Edmonton were also exposed, Godin said.

“We’ve had quite a number of officers at this point now who have been exposed to fentanyl, who have had to receive Narcan (naloxone) — the instant treatment, a life-saving treatment — and they’ve also had to seek medical attention outside of the institution at outside hospitals.

“There’s been other officers affected at different sites,” Godin said. “Definitely, the numbers are growing.”

READ MORE: 14 carfentanil deaths in 3 months spurs opioid warning in Alberta 

The union says guards can come into contact with the drug while doing searches of cells and vehicles, searching incoming mail or responding to inmates overdosing.

“At the same time we’re applying first aid as would a paramedic, we’re also having to worry about our own safety… wherever that might be in the institution,” Godin said.

Corrections Services Canada (CSC) doesn’t formally track every instance of employee exposure to fentanyl. A spokesperson for CSC said it is “not aware of any cases where an employee has tested positive for fentanyl.”

However, communications adviser Avely Serin said CSC has precautions and a process in place for every exposure instance.

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“In 2012, CSC provided front-line staff with information on the dangers of fentanyl, methods of identification, and safe-handling practices,” Serin said in an email to Global News.

“In July 2017, CSC issued a protocol to front-line staff on the handling, testing, storage, and disposal of highly toxic substances (HTS) such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Specifically, this protocol provides staff with guidelines on which personal protective equipment and strategies to use when the presence of HTS is suspected in order to keep employees, offenders and members of the public safe.

“Front-line staff have the necessary personal protective equipment (e.g. nitrile gloves, N-95 masks, safety goggles, etc.) in order to ensure safe handling of HTS.

“Narcan is available to our nurses and clinicians as part of our emergency medical response to drug overdose or accidental exposure. When health-care staff are not available, Narcan nasal spray is accessible to correctional staff in institutions for use on inmates and/or staff.”

READ MORE: Fentanyl fact sheet – what it is and what it does

Godin said having a life-saving antidote onsite has been huge for corrections workers.

“The big step for the union off the get-go was the access to naloxone. We really pushed hard. In fact, we had to push this through a labour decision in the Pacific region and eventually the employer got on board, sat down with us and we made sure that naloxone was readily available to those officers — and obviously inmates — because oftentimes, we’ll have to administer to an inmate.”

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The union agrees there are safety protocols and procedures in place, but says improvements to keep staff safe can always be made. Godin would like to see if technology can be used to help with “safe searching equipment” for incoming mail.

“There’s different measures we’re trying to take,” Godin said, “but there’s no magic wand solution.”

Serin said CSC continues to consult with federal and provincial opioid and Occupational Health & Safety experts to stay informed about the latest developments in the safe handling of HTS.

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