Opiates suspected as cause of overdoses among Saskatchewan women inmates

Several inmates have overdosed at Saskatchewan's correctional facilities in recent weeks.

Inmate describes witnessing overdosein Prince Albert last week

An inmate at the Prince Albert jail says she witnessed a woman overdose and described her as 'gone.' (B Calkins/Shutterstock)

A group of inmates spent time in hospital after overdosing while in custody at a Saskatchewan correctional facility last week. 

Six women overdosed on what was believed to be an opiate between Nov. 18 and 24 at Pine Grove Correctional Centre, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice.

Several people overdosed in November at Saskatoon's Correctional Centre. One of them died and the rest were sent to hospital. 

Last month, two women who overdosed in cells at the provincial courthouse in Regina were treated on site by courthouse staff and then taken to the hospital.  

Inmate says heroin, carfentanil, meth involved

An inmate at Pine Grove has told CBC News she heard what happened as one of the women overdosed last week at the Prince Albert jail. 

"Somebody said, 'She's going under, she's going under,' so I ran back and I was like 'do I call for the guard or do I do CPR?'"

CBC is not naming the inmate because of safety concerns. 

"​She was blue, she was grey, she was gone," she said, adding one of the other women "brought her back."

The women says she pounded on the windows to get the guards' attention. "I don't know how long it was but it felt like forever and they came in," she recalled

She says staff moved the inmates out of the area and the woman who overdosed was taken to the hospital.

She says the inmates were interviewed about what happened. However, she said, she did not receive support to deal with witnessing the overdose. 

"Sitting in here, there's no programming, there's nothing. There's nothing to work on yourself, absolutely nothing."

The inmate says the drugs involved were heroin, carfentanil and crystal meth.

ODs highlight health issue: frontline worker

"It really highlights the issue of how prisons are not the best places for individuals who have addictions issues," said Jonna Reaume, a reintegration worker at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan.

Reaume works with women in the community who have been released from Pine Grove Correctional Centre and visits the jail regularly.

She says many women coming into custody already struggle with addictions, problems the jails aren't equipped to handle:  "They're not built or staffed to accommodate individuals who are overdosing or withdrawing from drugs or alcohol."

She says these situations highlight a healthcare issue — not a criminal one. 

Reaume says inmates have limited access to treatment and counselling, adding there are no programs for those on remand awaiting a trial.

She says more provincial funding and resources need to be put toward addictions and mental health. 

Justice minister cites obligation to ensure safety

"It's troublesome that we're having that taking place in our correctional facilities," Justice Minister Don Morgan said Monday.

He said the government has "ramped up medical assistance" by making Naloxone available at facilities throughout the province and increasing inspections for people coming in.

However, added, people are "inventive" about where they conceal drugs, which makes it challenging for correctional staff.

Morgan says it's important to remember people who are in custody have had their liberty taken away, "so we have an obligation to ensure that those people are kept safe and receive the attention they need."

Union says staff need support

"The corrections officers are the front-line people, they're the first responders on these scenes," said Bob Bymoen, president of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union, which represents staff at provincial correctional centres.

"Nobody wants to go to work wondering if their going to have to save somebody's life from overdosing, but that's their reality," Bymoen said, adding  these incidents might contribute to post traumatic stress disorder experienced by correctional officers.

He says the number and nature of overdoses is concerning for both the inmates and the staff.

Bymoen says staff are looking for more training on how to administer medication used to treat opioid overdoses, and also how to identify the drug and symptoms. 

with files from Omayra Issa