An inmate from the Barton Street jail in Hamilton is dead after a reported drug overdose, and city ambulance crews have been called to the detention centre a startling 12 times since Monday for inmates all suffering from overdose-like symptoms.

Police spokesperson Catherine Martin says vice and drug detectives have been brought into assist with the investigation. But no wider community alerts have been issued. "At this point, a public safety alert is not warranted," she said.

Ministry spokesperson Brent Ross confirmed to CBC Hamilton the inmate — a man who sources say was in his early 30s — Tuesday night in hospital. The coroner will now perform an autopsy to determine an official cause of death, but paramedics were first called to the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre Monday evening when three inmates were rushed to hospital suffering from reported drug overdoses.

Hamilton EMS commander Jevon Towns told CBC Hamilton that three people were first taken to hospital from the jail with overdose symptoms around 5 p.m. Monday.

“Three individuals were transported to hospital at that time in stable condition,” he said. Those three inmates were later returned to the jail, Ross says, but then paramedics were called back Tuesday after one of the patient’s hearts stopped.

“Hamilton Paramedics were able to resuscitate the patient and the patient was transported to hospital in critical condition,” he said. That patient later died in hospital. All told, Hamilton EMS has responded to the site a total of 12 times since Monday, Towns says. Dispatch records don't indicate how many separate patients were included, he added. "Definitely this is an increase in the number of responses beyond what we would normally see."

Drugs smuggled in by repeat offender, source says

Paramedics were receiving reports of “unconscious” patients with a “decreased level of awareness," Towns said. "It is important to note that this concern is based on information collected during the call for assistance and may be different than the actual patient condition on paramedic arrival."

A source inside the jail told CBC Hamilton that guards first noticed there was a problem when the inmates who apparently overdosed didn't eat a meal. When the guards called out to the inmates and didn't get a response, they entered their cells and saw they were in distress. "That's when CPR commenced and 911 was called," he said.

The source says the drugs the inmates overdosed on were smuggled in by a repeat offender — something that is common among people who "know they're coming in" because the value of drugs inside is much higher than on the street. A former inmate told CBC Hamilton that everything from cigarettes to crack cocaine is about three times the price of street value inside.

"You can pack an awful lot of contraband deep in a rectum," the source said. "Plus, the ministry is very timid about cavity searches." There are also very few "dry cells" available for inmates when they first come in, the source says. "Dry cells" are places where inmates who have just been admitted can be watched for a time to see if they've ingested or are carrying any drugs. "Staffing levels are low, and searching has dropped off due to low staffing levels," he said.

Police investigating

Ross says the Ministry cannot release the inmate's name because of an ongoing investigation and the "potential of a coroner's inquiry," which is mandatory when an inmate dies an "unnatural death." Any information about where the drugs came from is "entirely speculation" at this point, he said. "Right now we're going through the investigation and can't speak to rumours that might be out there."

Ross also wouldn't answer questions about either increased levels of drug use in the Barton jail, or the use of a more dangerous versions of drugs entering the facility. Back in September of 2012, an inmate died of an apparent heroin overdose inside the Barton jail. Three other people were also hospitalized over what was called “bad heroin.”

Const. Claus Wagner told CBC Hamilton Division 1 detectives are investigating “an incident” at the jail. He would not specify what that investigation entailed. Police spokesperson Catherine Martin says vice and drug detectives are also investigating, "but at this point, a public safety alert is not warranted."

According to the Office of the Chief Coroner, there have been seven overdose deaths in Ontario jails since 2008.