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Guards' union says opioid crisis 'magnified' inside Ontario jails

The potency of fentanyl and carfentanyl is transforming the way opioids are smuggled into jails

August 15, 2018

The family of inmates who have died at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre hold a rally demanding justice. With 13 deaths in the last decade, the institution has one of the highest inmate death rates in Canada. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The union representing jail guards in Ontario says the province's simmering opioid crisis, which has killed 850 people in the province in 2016, is "magnified" inside Ontario's jail system because of the large number of addicts behind bars and the difficulty in screening for newer, more powerful opioids, such as fentanyl. 

"Our officers did an amazing job saving seven individuals' lives." - Monte Vieselmeyer

It comes after a CBC News investigation highlighted how easily contraband seems to flow in and out of the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centrethe recent overdoses of seven inmates and the launch of a coroner's inquest into the deaths of three London inmates, two of whom died of apparent drug overdoses while in custody. 

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Monte Vieselmeyer, the chair of corrections for the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union, which represents guards at the London jail said Tuesday that, like the rest of the province, Ontario's jails are struggling to contain a deadly opioid crisis that's festering behind bars. 

"If somebody overdoses, I don't believe it's because an officer isn't doing their job," he said. "Our officers did an amazing job saving seven individuals' lives. We're becoming more in tune with how to respond to save these individuals' lives." 

"The professionalism of our staff needs to recognized and quite often because we're behind gates and walls, that's not fully understood by the public," he said.  

Deadly fentanyl has changed the game

Police in communities across the province has been struggling to contain the tide of deadly fentanyl. OPSEU, the union representing jail guards say the same problem is 'magnified' behind bars. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Vieselmeyer, who's spent 28 years as a corrections officer in Ontario, said while seven inmates overdosing within minutes of each other is unusual, it isn't unprecedented. 

However there are no official figures on the number of inmates that have overdosed behind bars in recent years.

While the Ontario Ministry of Community Services and Corrections records overdose deaths, it doesn't record instances where inmates have overdosed and survived. 

The strength of drugs has gone off the Richter scale. - Monte Vieselmeyer

Many of the people who are sent to jail often have a combination of mental health and addiction issues and, unless they're receiving addictions treatment in the community, there is little help available behind bars. 

"That's one of the issues that's been in jails forever and a day," Vieselmeyer said, noting the potency of drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanyl, which are hundreds of times more powerful than heroin and only require a dose the size of a grain of sand to kill, have changed the game. 

"We know with fentanyl and carfentanyl you can take a very small dosage and it can be a very life-threatening situation," he said, noting he's heard of instances where inmates spiked a batch of prison "brew," a makeshift alcoholic concoction made by inmates, with fentanyl, sending multiple people to hospital for overdoses. 

"The strength of drugs has gone off the Richter scale," he said. "Quite often [inmates] don't know what they're taking, but the willingness to take it is quite concerning.The inmates are playing Russian roulette right now." 

Crisis 'magnified' in jail

The Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre has one of the highest rates of inmate deaths in the country with 13 in the last decade, six of which have occurred in the last 12 months. (Ousama Farag/CBC News)

"It's a terrible crisis in the community, but it gets magnified in the jail," he said, noting that even with the addition of a full-body scanner inside the EMDC in March, drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanyl are still slipping through security. 

"We're doing our best to catch them, but in reality, there's no way you can monitor the number of inmates we're asked to monitor with our staffing levels." 

The province has been retrofitting jails across the province for a number of years, adding close circuit security cameras to make it easier for guards to supervise inmates, but the union says its members aren't able to monitor all the information they're expected to. 

"It presents significant challenges to monitor large numbers of cameras," he said. "There have been studies done that officers can only watch a maximum of four hours, probably only two hours tops, to be effective at monitoring through cameras." 

OPSEU says there still aren't enough jail guards to adequately monitor prisoners in Ontario because of a provincial hiring freeze under the former Liberal government a number of years ago.

Vieselmeyer said the province hired more than 2,000 jail guards over the last two years, many of them are not only inexperienced compared to their more seasoned counterparts, but are part-time, filling in for senior officers whenever they take time off. ‚Äč

The EMDC was built in the 1970s and was only ever designed to hold 150 inmates, but the website for the Ontario Ministry of Community Services and Corrections lists the institution's maximum capacity at 450. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler
Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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