Correctional service: 16 prison staffers potentially exposed to fentanyl

A correctional officer is pictured at the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont., in May 2016. THE CANADIAN/Lars Hagberg

The Correctional Service of Canada has confirmed that 16 members of its staff have potentially been exposed to the deadly drug fentanyl while on the job.

The numbers span the period between December 2015 and September 2017, and were released in response to a written question submitted in the House of Commons by Conservative MP Dave Van Kesteren.

“The information provided represents situations when employees, in the course of their duties, have reported incidents that they believed could have been fentanyl-related or may have been identified within a range of possible drugs which could include fentanyl,” the CSC’s response notes.

While Van Kesteren asked for all incidents since December 2015, the incidents reported all occurred between August 2016 and June 2017, at five different institutions.

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It started with five staffers being potentially exposed in August 2016 at B.C.’s Mountain Institution, just over 100 kilometres outside fentanyl-ravaged Vancouver. That same month, a staffer at the nearby maximum-security Kent Institution also reported a potential exposure.

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Then the problem moved eastward.

October 2016 brought three more potential exposures at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. There was a lull until February 2017, when four more possible exposures were reported at the Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont.

Finally, in May and June of this year, there were three possible exposures reported at Alberta’s Drumheller Institution — bringing the total of affected corrections staff to 16.

The potential for exposure to fentanyl has been a concern for corrections staff across Canada for years, both at the federal and provincial levels. The drug is so deadly in such small quantities (a dose as small as a few grains of salt can result in an overdose) that even accidental contact can incapacitate or kill an adult.

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In September, five people (including staff) at the provincially-run Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., were hospitalized for suspected exposure to fentanyl.

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The union representing federal corrections workers says that the new numbers released by CSC are probably low, but it’s not necessarily the department’s fault. The union itself has reported several recent incidents that are seemingly not included in the CSC’s response to Van Kesteren’s question.

Jason Godin, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, explained that it can be difficult to determine exactly what constitutes exposure to fentanyl, because the drug is being mixed in with so many other drugs on the street.

There are also privacy concerns, he said Wednesday, and staff are entitled to keep precise medical issues confidential. But at least one of his members has been hospitalized following what appeared to be a fentanyl exposure.

“One thing we know for sure is that our members are being exposed,” Godin said.

“Our suspicion is that the (reported) numbers are low … we think those numbers are higher, but it’s difficult to determine for us, and even for CSC.”

At this point, Godin said, what is clear is that fentanyl is present in the Canadian prison system in significant quantities — and there have been confirmed cases of the even more potent carfentanil as well.

Taking better precautions

In response, the union wants an immediate change to the policy governing how corrections staff respond to emergencies.

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If there is evidence of potentially harmful residue or powder near an inmate, Godin explained, a corrections officer will don an N95 respirator mask that filters out airborne particles. But if the inmate has overdosed or is unconscious, “our immediate policy says we must preserve life.”

That means switching to a CPR pocket mask, not a respirator bag like the ones being used by paramedics.

“That means I have to put my face eight millimetres away from an inmate’s face to perform CPR,” Godin said. “We think that’s ridiculous.”

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The union is also calling for a change to safe handling requirements, which are special precautions that only kick in once corrections staff have detected three grams of highly toxic substances. Outside Canada’s prisons, emergency responders have a threshold of one gram.

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One recent positive change, Godin noted, is that mail must now be opened using a safe ventilation system. At least one incident reported by the union last summer involved possible exposure after a corrections officer opened a piece of mail meant for an inmate.

“Make no mistake, we’re finding it,” Godin said. “It’s in our prison system.”

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