Prison guard understaffing has made the drug detection system in Ontario prisons virtually “useless,” the head of the guard’s union says.

And that can lead to overdose deaths like the one suspected Tuesday night in Hamilton, said Dan Sidsworth, chair of corrections with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). The union is also calling for improved scanning technologysimilar to that used in ​airports—to help detect drugs and weapons.

“Generally we’re understaffed in the system,” he said. “Our workload has changed and evolved.”

That leads to drugs getting into facilities and getting passed on to the general population — and when that happens, deaths can happen. A man who sources say was in his early 30s died Tuesday night in a Hamilton hospital after a reported overdose, and city ambulance crews have been called to the detention centre a startling 12 times between Monday and Wednesday morning for inmates all suffering from overdose-like symptoms. Three people were taken to hospital with overdose symptoms Monday.

Guards don't perform cavity searches: union head

As some 80,000 inmates are admitted to Ontario prisons each year, with many more visits from the outside population, there are many opportunities for contraband like drugs, weapons and cell phones can be smuggled inside. Guards don’t perform cavity searches, Sidsworth says, so they have to rely on intelligence from police and other sources to determine if a person is carrying contraband in some way.

Guards do perform strip searches, and can place a person in a “dry cell” if they suspect he or she is carrying contraband. "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. 

“But without constant observations or cameras in those cells, it’s a useless endeavor,” Sidsworth said. Not enough guards are available to consistently monitor the cells, he says, so inmates are “passing things in dry cells and re-ingesting them.” There are only enough guards for patrols on a half hour basis, so “between that time inmates are left to fend for themselves,” he said.

A source inside the jail told CBC Hamilton the drugs the inmates overdosed on in Hamilton 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." In addition to a lack of people to monitor them, there are simply very few "dry cells" available for inmates when they first come into the Barton Street jail, the source says. "Staffing levels are low, and searching has dropped off due to low staffing levels," he said.

Jails have nothing to detect ingested contraband

The jail does use body orifice security scanners (BOSS) to detect contraband, but according to a House of Commons report on drugs and alcohol in federal penitentiaries, the chairs have “not proven successful in all trials to date.” OPSEU is advocating for the use of full-fledged body scanners like those used at airports — which would be useful for detecting drugs and also weapons, which are also a problem in Ontario jails, Sidsworth says. The Barton street jail does have metal detectors, but these are circumvented by inmates by using plastic and carbon-based weapons, he says.

“We’re finding more and more of these in institutions now and we have nothing to detect them,” Sidsworth said. Those weapons are used to protect the people who are moving drugs through facilities. “It’s a cycle,” he said. “They’re all connected.”

Ministry representatives could not immediately be reached for comment on full body scanners in Ontario prisons.

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. 

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

An inquest from the Ontario's chief coroner's office into two drug-related deaths at Toronto's Don Jail, which, like Hamilton's is a detention centre accepting many new inmates daily, found that the scanners in Ontario's jails are not able to detect most contraband smuggled inside body cavities. 

The jury recommended a committee be formed to explore new and emerging technologies that can detect the incoming drugs, however ministry officials didn't immediately have information if the committee had be formed.

Drugs easier to find inside than on the street

Outside the jail, one former inmate of both the Barton jail and the federal penitentiary system said that inmates will swallow up to 10 condom balloons filled with contraband to sell on the inside. 

The man, who was visiting a friend in the jail for two-month stint and wished to remain anonymous, said it's easier to find drugs in the prison system than it is on the street. Because the Barton jail is a detention centre with many new inmates daily, the problem is even more prevalent. 

"Every day they're bringing 60 new people from court," the man said. "More opportunities. Quicker flow."

"People are addicts," he added. "It's easy. It's huge money in here."