Opioid overdoses a growing concern for workers in Alberta correctional facilities: ‘It’s disturbing’

The Edmonton Remand Centre.
The Edmonton Remand Centre. File/Global News

The head of the union representing sheriffs, correctional and probation officers said opioid overdoses are a growing concern for workers.

“I would describe it as disturbing,” Scott Conrad, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Local 3 chairperson and a Calgary correctional officer said.

“There’s more emergency responses required. Staff are being asked to save lives on a more frequent basis.”

READ MORE: Staff at Edmonton Remand Centre respond to 3rd suspected drug OD in less than 2 weeks

“It affects our sheriff group which transports the inmates around the province and to court. It affects the AHS [Alberta Health Services] nurses that work inside the facility. It affects the public works department, which does repairs at the facility,” he said. “And then there’s the fear of cross-contamination from the opioids to the officers.”
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According to AHS, from January 2016 to end of November 2017 there were 122 suspected overdoses in all of Alberta’s provincial correctional facilities.

Of the 122 suspected overdoses, 115 were suspected to be due to opioids.

“That number is not surprising to me,” Conrad said.

Conrad said drugs are most commonly smuggled into correctional facilities inside an inmate’s body.

“The inmates get them all sorts of crafty ways. The number one way would be bringing it inside their person when they know they’re getting arrested or getting sentenced to time in court,” he said.

“Drugs can be worth anywhere between 10 and 20 times more in prison than what they’re worth on the street.”

READ MORE: Lockdown at Edmonton Remand Centre lifted after workers, management reach deal

The provincial government recently purchased a body scanner for the Edmonton Remand Centre in an effort to prevent drugs from entering the facility.

The body scanner’s effectiveness will be evaluated next December and the province will decide whether to purchase the technology for other correctional facilities.

“Having more body scanners certainly would help,” Conrad said.

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“I don’t want to downplay the fact that they bought one because it is a $580,000 piece of machinery and that’s a lot of money in these financial times. However, that $580,000 also includes a 10-year maintenance package. So for 10 years, the government doesn’t have to spend any money on this piece of machinery. So I think more would be required.”

READ MORE: Calgary first responders see 250% spike in opioid-related calls in 2017

AHS has also initiated an opioid dependency therapy pilot project at the Calgary Correctional Centre for inmates with substance abuse issues. The program will be evaluated after six months and potentially expanded to other facilities.

However, Conrad said probation officers should also be permitted to carry naloxone nasal spray.

“Probation officers are left out in the cold basically. Our probation officers have no way to help a probationer who comes in and overdoses. They have no way to help their coworker who gets cross-contaminated other than to call 911, and it’s disturbing to us.”