New Brunswick jails not tracking drug overdoses

Opioid overdoses behind bars have soared in other provinces, as the country deals with an opioid epidemic. Has the same happened in New Brunswick? No one knows.

Provincial jails have numbers on non-fatal overdoses but are reluctant to release them, ombud says

New Brunswick isn't tracking the number of non-fatal drug overdoses that happen inside provincial jails, according to a right to information request. (CBC )

New Brunswick's correctional system should start tracking the number of drug overdoses that happen inside jails, according to the province's ombud.

In other provinces, such as Alberta, opioid overdoses have spiked behind bars as the country struggles with an opioid epidemic.

But it's impossible to measure the problem inside New Brunswick jails because no one is tracking it.

"You can't tackle a problem until you know if you have a problem," said ombud Charles Murray, who investigates complaints about the provincial correctional system.

"If you're not measuring the numbers, you really can't say."

CBC News asked the Department of Justice and Public Safety to provide the number of inmates who were treated for drug-related overdoses and survived.

The government responded to the right to information request by saying it doesn't capture that information.

"The confirming of an actual drug overdose requires testing within a hospital setting and only then would the substance be confirmed," Justice and Public Safety Minister Denis Landry wrote in a letter of response in May.

Auditor general will weigh in on issue

New Brunswick auditor general Kim MacPherson will release a report on Tuesday about access to mental health and addictions treatment in jails. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
The minister was not available for an interview on Wednesday.

An emailed statement from the department said overdoses aren't common in jails. But it didn't explain why it's not tracking the ones that do happen or whether it plans to change the practice.

"Our department is working actively with the Department of Health to improve the health monitoring of individual inmates and health-related data collection, with the desired outcome of improved conditions for our incarcerated population," spokeswoman Alexandra Davis wrote in an email.

An ongoing CBC News investigation has found that addiction or mental health issues are linked to several deaths in New Brunswick jails.

It has also uncovered several cases of inmates losing access to prescribed medications in jail, including methadone, a treatment for opioid addiction.

Auditor general Kim MacPherson launched an investigation into the addiction and mental health treatment provided to provincial inmates.

She is to release the findings of her audit on Tuesday morning.

'That's very easy to track'

The province's response comes as other government departments have stepped up monitoring of opioid overdoses.

Ambulance New Brunswick and hospital emergency rooms now track non-fatal opioid overdoses in almost real time.

Julie Dingwell, executive director of Avenue B Harm Reduction, questions why jails aren't tracking drug overdoses. (CBC)
Paramedics record the number of overdoses by counting the number of patients who respond to an opioid overdose antidote called naloxone. The drug only works if someone has taken opioids.

Their numbers show a surge in patients responding to naloxone over a five-year period, increasing by 624 per cent.

Julie Dingwell sees the opioid crisis up close at Avenue B Harm Reduction in uptown Saint John.

The organization, formerly known as AIDS Saint John, hands out hundreds of thousands of clean needles to opioid users every year.

Dingwell couldn't believe that jails aren't tracking overdoses. She suggested the Justice Department has the information but doesn't want to compile the numbers.

"This is crazy," said Dingwell, who is Avenue B's executive director.

"That's very easy to track."

Hundreds of drug, alcohol seizures since 2015

In other provinces, opioid overdoses within jails have spiked, as the country deals with an opioid epidemic. (Patrick Sison/Associated Press)

Murray also believes that jails have data on drug overdoses, kept within incident reports that are created when an inmate is taken to hospital.

The ombud has tried asking for the information himself, with little luck.

The problem, he suggested, is getting jails to acknowledge that inmates overdosed on contraband material.

"It's not easy sometimes to get government to compile records of its failures," Murray said.

"Because, obviously, every one of those things happens because there was a failure of the institution to maintain security."

New Brunswick jails reported nearly 700 contraband drug or alcohol seizures between 2015 and November 2017, according to data obtained by CBC News through access to information.

'How do you know it's working?'

Ombud Charles Murray believes jails have drug overdose data but may be reluctant to release it. (CBC)

The department didn't break down the type of drugs that were seized. The numbers don't include tobacco seizures.

Many of the people in jails are there because their addictions drove them to crime, Murray said.

He questioned what the province's jails are doing to help those people with addiction.

"Dealing with their addictions and controlling and providing treatment for their mental health issues has got to move higher up in our list of priorities," Murray said.