Opioids a growing concern in Alberta correctional institutions

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees is concerned about its correctional officers at risk of being exposed to deadly opioids.

'I don't think it's going to get any better,' warns correctional officer and AUPE spokesperson

There have been at least four suspected inmate deaths at the Edmonton Remand Centre since the beginning of 2016. (CBC)

The opioid crisis sweeping across Alberta has become "an epidemic" in the province's correctional facilities, says an official with a union which represents correctional officers.

"It's an epidemic," said Scott Conrad, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Local 3 chairperson and a Calgary correctional officer. "The concentrations and the amounts of drugs over the last 18 to 24 months have increased exponentially."

One inmate at the Edmonton Remand Centre recently died of a suspected overdose after he and another inmate were found unresponsive in their cells just days earlier. That makes four suspected overdose deaths in total at that remand centre since the beginning of 2016.

Alberta Health Services says there were 122 suspected overdoses in provincial correctional facilities between January 2016 and the end of November 2017.

Of those, 115 were suspected to be due to opioids.

'How little .... it takes to kill you'

When inmates are at risk, so are correctional officers, Conrad said.

"It certainly makes our job more intense," he said. "Officers in general worry about cross contamination and they worry about the health and safety of their fellow officers as well as the inmates. Nobody wants the death of an inmate."

There's no record of any Alberta officers dying but they are being exposed.

"There's been 12 (officers exposed) since the first of August," said Conrad, adding that officers have to look out for themselves because the inmates don't care.

"You would have to be living under a rock to not know how bad fentanyl is for you and how little of it it takes to kill you," said Conrad. "The indifference we're seeing towards those factors is quite disturbing. If that's how the inmates feel about themselves, then how they feel about everybody else that comes in contact with them is even less."

Conrad is hopeful policy changes introduced by the province at the end of October will have an impact.

• Suspected inmate overdose, assault on officer at Edmonton Remand Centre

• Edmonton Remand Centre inmate dies of suspected drug overdose

"We have new policies and procedures when dealing with suspected drug overdoses," said Conrad. "Proper personal protective equipment is readily available for the officers and there's a new policy in dealing with these type of things where we take precautions to make sure we do our level best to limit cross contamination."

Still Conrad believes more can be done.

In Alberta currently there's one body scanner for eight provincial facilities, and that one is at the Edmonton Remand Centre, he said. The scanners are used to detect hidden objects internally or on inmates.

"I am fully aware of the start-up cost of a body scanner, which would be $580,000," Conrad said. 

More scanners needed

But he thinks it would be worthwhile to have more scanners throughout the province.

"It's great that we have one in Edmonton, that's awesome," said Conrad. "That's a step in the right direction but the opioid crisis is everywhere, you can't turn on the news without hearing about it and I think that having more body scanners would certainly help."

Conrad said that drugs have always been an issue in the 18 years he's been in corrections. But with the rising opioid epidemic he's not optimistic the situation will improve.

"I don't think it's going to get any better, I really don't," said Conrad. "I'm hopeful that it does.  I'd be hopeful that people who use these illicit drugs use whatever brain cells they have left to go back to doing marijuana because that won't kill them."