As jails work to keep drugs out, fentanyl smuggling adds new challenges

Nova Scotia's director of corrections says combatting drugs in jails is like a chess match: when authorities come up with a new measure, inmates try to develop a workaround.

Because of its potency, fentanyl is a valuable form of contraband that's highly sought after inside jails

Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine. (CBC)

Nova Scotia's director of corrections says combatting drugs in jails is like a chess match: when authorities come up with a new measure, inmates try to develop a workaround.

"Sometimes when you introduce a new policy, a short time later, someone finds a way to circumvent that practice or policy and you have to come up with yet another way to deal with the potential threat," said Sean Kelly.

The newest move by the province is expected to take effect by the end of next month when the province hopes to have body scanners up and running in all adult jails. The gear will scan inmates as they enter the facilities and detect drugs that inmates have swallowed or concealed in a body cavity.

Because of concerns about drug smuggling, Nova Scotia jails have been photocopying mail coming to inmates, which is also logged and scanned on a computer. The photocopy is given to the inmate, while the original letter is placed in the inmate's file to be taken with them when they're released from custody.

Sean Kelly, the province's director of correctional services, says because of restrictions on what can be brought into a jail, contraband is worth a lot of money. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

"There have been incidents elsewhere in the country where mail could potentially be soaked in some form of drug, it would be dried and then placed in a regular envelope and sent in the mail and you wouldn't be able to know that it was there unless you did something like actually ingest the mail," said Kelly.

Last August, inmate mail was held up for four days amid reports a letter sent to the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Pictou County may have contained drugs.

Kelly said the highly toxic opioid fentanyl is posing new challenges for staff at Nova Scotia jails.

All incoming mail at Nova Scotia's four adult correctional facilities is photocopied and scanned on a computer as one way to address drugs entering the jails. (CBC)

"Small grains of fentanyl could be hidden behind a stamp, for instance, on an envelope," he said.

Fentanyl carries an added risk because the deadly drug can be absorbed through the skin. Jail staff are now equipped with protective clothing whenever they're dealing with a suspected case. The jails are also equipped with naloxone kits, the antidote that can reverse the lethal effects of an overdose.

Earlier this month, Halifax Regional Police were called to the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside after a search by jail staff allegedly discovered a 22-year-old inmate had drugs. Police seized the package, which included an unidentified white powder that's been sent to Health Canada for testing.

No charges have been laid yet, but the matter is being investigated.

A single cigarette smuggled inside a jail can be worth $15. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

Last year at this time, an inmate was admitted to the Pictou jail with drug paraphernalia in his possession. According to documents from the Department of Justice, the paraphernalia had trace amounts of fentanyl on it.

Kelly said because of restrictions on what can be brought into a jail, contraband is worth a lot of money. For example, a single cigarette can be worth up to $15.

Kelly said fentanyl or other higher-valued drugs are worth considerably more.

"Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine. You can just imagine the potential impact in a correctional facility where offenders are potentially drug seeking and trying to come up with ways to bring that type of contraband into a correctional facility," he said.

About the Author

Blair Rhodes

Reporter

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 35 years, the last 27 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety. He can be reached at blair.rhodes@cbc.ca