Alberta to offer opioid addictions treatment at jails after successful Calgary pilot

As Alberta jails face an overdose epidemic, the province’s health authority is rolling out opioid addictions treatment at corrections facilities after a successful pilot project in Calgary.

Other provinces monitoring program, health authority says

A successful pilot program for opioid addictions treatment at the Calgary Correctional Centre will be expanded to the other nine provincial jails. (Google Maps)

As Alberta jails face an overdose epidemic, the province's health authority is rolling out opioid addictions treatment at corrections facilities after a successful pilot project in Calgary.

Alberta Health Services ran the pilot for seven months at the Calgary Correctional Centre, where 60 inmates were prescribed suboxone or methadone from September 2017 to the end of March.

The program was considered a success, given that inmates were interested in treatment and often stuck with it, said Keith Courtney, a medical director for correctional health services at AHS.

The health authority is now expanding the program to the remaining nine provincial jails, beginning with the Lethbridge Correctional Centre and, later, the Edmonton Remand Centre.

"This is a chance to take what many individuals consider to be a difficult population and make a difference in their lives," Courtney said in an interview.

There were 170 suspected drug overdoses in provincial jails since the beginning of 2016, including 32 so far this year, according to Alberta Health Services. Most of them were linked to opioids.

Recent overdoses in custody

Three inmates have died from drug overdoses since 2016.

The latest overdose cases came Sunday night, when three men were taken to hospital from the Calgary Remand Centre in stable, non-life-threatening condition.

"Individuals need treatment, not just response to emergencies," Courtney said. "It's offering individuals help, hopefully in many cases before they overdose in the future."

Officials in addictions treatment widely consider suboxone and methadone to be ideal treatments for opioid addictions, because the medications satisfy cravings but don't produce euphoria, allowing patients to get on with their lives.

Courtney said he is aware of only two other provinces — Ontario and British Columbia — that prescribe methadone and suboxone to inmates. He said Alberta's program has captured the attention of other provinces, which are monitoring its efforts.

CBC News revealed this week yawning gaps in care for Ontario inmates, citing criticisms with a policy that states methadone should not be prescribed to patients in corrections facilities who previously didn't receive the treatment, except under special circumstances.

The pilot at the Calgary Correctional Centre began with prescribing largely suboxone to high-risk inmates, including those who have had multiple overdoses or have medical complications because of their drug use.

Care continues outside jail

Inmates then received treatment outside the jail from health care providers in the city. Courtney said officials worked to find physicians who can continue to provide treatment for patients after they are released from jail, reducing the risks of them relapsing and perhaps returning to a life of crime.

Health officials are now offering the program to greater numbers of inmates in the Calgary facility.

"If we can treat individuals and get them away from drug use I think it improves health care outcomes, which has long term effects in lowering health costs," Courtney said. "I think it improves criminal outcomes as well. People are hopefully able to get back to society, get back to their lives."

During the seven-month pilot, there were still eight suspected drug overdoses at the Calgary Correctional Centre, though other jails had more cases.

Here's a breakdown of overdoses at Alberta's 10 jails during the period, from September 2017 to March 31:

  • Calgary Remand Centre: 16
  • Red Deer Remand Centre: 14
  • Peace River Correctional Centre: 10
  • Calgary Correctional Centre: 8
  • Edmonton Remand Centre: 7
  • Lethbridge Correctional Centre: 7
  • Medicine Hat Remand Centre: 7
  • Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre: 1
  • Calgary Young Offender Centre: 0
  • Edmonton Young Offender Centre: 0

The province says, so far this year, there have been 32 suspected overdoses at its correctional facilities. From January to December of 2017, there were 80 suspected overdoses — all but five believed to be related to opioids.

And over the same period in 2016, there were 57 suspected overdoses — 56 of them believed to be from opioids.

Union leader backs program

Scott Conrad, who chairs a union that represents Alberta corrections officers, said he backs efforts to expand access to treatment, but he raised doubts most inmates in the program will leave their drug use and life of crime behind after they're released.

Conrad said while some inmates enrol in these programs because they want to get better, others are in them simply to curry favour with judges to secure certain perks, such as temporary absences and early releases.

"Everything we try to do helps," said Conrad, chairperson of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Local 3, and a Calgary corrections officer.

"But there has to be some onus on the inmate to carry forth with everything once they get released."

About the Author

Reid Southwick spent 10 years in newspapers reporting in New Brunswick and Alberta before joining CBC in late 2017. In Calgary, he has covered business news, crime and Alberta's fentanyl crisis. Get in touch with Reid by email at or on Twitter @ReidSouthwick.