Former Pine Grove, Sask. inmates allege lack of care dealing with drug withdrawal behind bars

Tanya Sayer and Chantel Huel still feel on edge when they recall their opioid withdrawal during their detention at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask.

'When you are a drug addict, you need help,' says former inmate Tanya Sayer

Former Pine Grove inmate Chantel Huel was sick for 10 days due to opiate withdrawal during her detention in 2013. (CBC News)

Two former inmates at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre are urging the Saskatchewan government to improve medical care available for inmates dealing with drug withdrawals in its correctional centres.

On Friday, Chantel Huel and Tanya Sayer alleged they were not treated for withdrawal symptoms when they were still behind bars.

Both Huel and Sayer are no longer struggling with addictions and are out of prison today.

'I thought about suicide'

Huel said she was going through withdrawal from opiates, methadone, and crack cocaine when she arrived at Pine Grove in 2013.

"I will never forget the experience because I was so sick," recalled Huel.

She said she got no medical attention from prison staff despite experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, and physical discomfort for ten days.

I thought about suicide. Suicide would be easier than feeling this.- ​Chantel Huel, former inmate

"The pain was so much, and there was no help and there was nobody there to offer the support and the care and the medical attention that I needed."

Huel said she thought about killing herself.

"To take the pain away of detoxing off of opiates, I thought about suicide. Suicide would be easier than feeling this," she said. Only other inmates have reached out to help with her withdrawal, she said.

Tanya Sayer claimed to have been in bed for 14 days and that no prison employee came to see her.

Sayer, who was struggling with cocaine, heroin, morphine, hydromorphone, and Ritalin addictions when she arrived at Pine Grove in 2012, said she had a similar experience.

"I couldn't get out of bed. I was really sick. I wasn't checked on or anything. I couldn't move. I was physically sick, emotionally all over the place, mentally I just had suicidal thoughts and spiritually I was broken," she said.

She maintains that she didn't have a medical examination on arrival, although the province must provide a medical assessment within 24 hours of arrival at a correctional centre.

She said her withdrawal was very tiring and that she did not receive medical help.

"All I can say is that when you are a drug addict, you need help," Sayer said.  

She suffered from diarrhea, vomiting, and had muscle pain to the point that she thought of ending her life. She claimed to have been in bed for 14 days and that no prison employee came to see her.

Review of medical services in correctional centres

Former Pine Grove Correctional Centre inmates allege they were not treated for withdrawal symptoms in the women's prison during their stay. (CBC)

The Ministry of Justice would not comment on the two women's allegations.

Drew Wilby, executive director with Saskatchewan's Corrections Ministry, said Pine Grove follows detoxification protocols and the direction of medical professionals for those going through withdrawal.

Wilby said the provincial government is currently reviewing medical services in its correctional facilities and across the province in light of recent deaths.

About 80 per cent of the Saskatchewan correctional population "is suffering from some nature of addiction issue", explained Wilby. He said that there are nurses at the Pine Grove site from 7 a.m. until 10:45 p.m. CST, seven days a week. A doctor is also on call in case of emergency.

Since 2001, 26 people have died while in provincial custody.

One case is Shauna Wolf, 27. Wolf died on Dec. 27, 2015, which was 10 days after she arrived at Pine Grove Correctional Centre. 

Wolf was found in distress in her cell and died while being transported by ambulance from the facility to hospital in the city, according to Wilby. 

Wolf's father, Bill Faulkner, told CBC that his daughter's repeated requests for medical attention were ignored while she was alive. 

The ongoing investigation by the coroner will determine if it is the case.

Need for healthcare services

The Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask. (CBC)

Sue Delaney, executive director of Elizabeth Fry Society, said her organization often receives calls from prisoners claiming they don't have access to medical care. Delaney said services are not always available when the incarcerated women need them.

"Depending on what you are detoxing off of, you are often just put in a cell. What are the requirements to observe you or watch you?"

Delaney said women who are struggling with addictions should receive drug treatment services in the community, rather than be incarcerated.

"While people are incarcerated, they do have some rights and we want those people to be well taken care of, so that they can integrate in society," she said.

Opioid and alcohol withdrawal can prove life-threatening in the absence of medical care, according to Peter Butt, associate professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.