Alberta federal prison opened an overdose prevention site for inmates this week

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Alberta’s Drumheller federal prison opened an overdose prevention site for inmates on Monday, Global News has learned. It is the first prison in Canada to do so.

“Participants using the service will be allowed to use self-supplied substances,” a spokesperson for the Correctional Service of Canada told Global News in an email.

Inmates looking to access the overdose prevention site, which runs every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., must first meet with corrections health staff.

“Participants using the OPS will not be disciplined for using the service,” the spokesperson said. 

READ MORE: Alberta prison staff member charged with drug trafficking at Drumheller Institution

But no inmate has yet used the site.

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“As of today, no one has engaged in the Service,” Corrections Canada told Global News on Friday. “It will take time for this service to be active.”

“This is a new harm reduction initiative and inmates were given the opportunity to visit the site and ask questions.”

The site includes safe consumption rooms inside the prison’s Health Services where health-care staff, including nurses, are available to respond to an overdose or other medical emergencies. Site participants will be provided with a clean needle and syringe and other necessary supplies, which they may use only during their visit.

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However, correctional officers will still “conduct their everyday responsibilities as usual, including performing urinalysis testing and searches, as per legislative and policy frameworks,” the spokesperson said.

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Some medical experts say overdose prevention sites are necessary amid rising overdose death rates in correctional facilities. Others have been concerned about such a service operating inside a prison, and specifically how inmates will be able to be open about their drug use without violating their confidentiality.

READ MORE: HIV/AIDS group concerned over proposed overdose prevention site at Alberta prison

Earlier this month, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network released a statement saying that “supervised injection sites or overdose prevention sites must NOT replace needle and syringe programs in prison.” 

The group is currently suing the federal government over the lack of access to needle exchange in prisons. There are needle exchange programs operating in six federal prisons in Canada — but not in Drumheller.

The union representing Canadian corrections officers told Global News previously that prison guards would prefer supervised drug consumption sites to needle exchange programs, which the union says provides inmates with weapons.

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Safe consumption site for Peterborough
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But according to the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, there has never been a single reported attack involving equipment from needle exchange programs in their 25 years of operation.

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Overdoses and overdose deaths in federal prisons have more than doubled in recent years, according to a recent report by Corrections Canada. Drumheller Institution, located more than an hour from Calgary, often has the highest overdose rates.

According to the CSC report, there were 53 overdose incidents at Drumheller from 2012 to 2017. “Fentanyl was suspected or confirmed in 34 per cent of overdose incidents at Drumheller, compared to 8 per cent at all other institutions,” the report stated.