Union officials are raising the alarm, as the opioid crisis in Alberta appears to have spread to prisons – as a number of prison guards have been exposed to dangerous amounts of fentanyl while on the job in recent months.
Jason Godin, president of the Union of Correctional Services told CTV News on Tuesday that the officers can come into contact with fentanyl in a number of ways, such as doing first aid on an inmate who had overdosed, by handling mail and by conducting searches.
“There’s a heightened crisis in the community and that heightened crisis is now reaching us in the institutional setting as well,” Godin said.
Back in mid-July at the Edmonton Max, six officers were exposed to fentanyl – two of those were taken to hospital, and another had to be given naloxone, a medication to reverse an opioid overdose.
At Bowden Institution, one guard had to be hospitalized for 48 hours after coming into contact with fentanyl.
Godin said those incidents should be considered a wakeup call that protocols need to change for workers in this field.
“Most law enforcement officers would start taking safety precautions after finding one gram of an unknown substance,” Godin said. “We’re in disagreement with the department that it should be three grams.
“We should be the same as any law enforcement.”
The federal government did not answer questions, but sent a statement to CTV News saying:
“In July 2017, Correctional Service Canada issued a protocol to frontline staff on the handling, testing, storage and disposal of highly toxic substances (HTS) such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Specifically, this protocol provides staff with guidelines on which personal protective equipment and strategies to use when the presence of HTS is suspected in order to keep employees, offenders and members of the public safe.”
At the Remand Centre, a provincial institution, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith said workers have noticed an increase in opioids.
“Our members have noticed a lot more on the front lines,” Smith said.
The AUPE said no members have come into contact with fentanyl, but they have seen the side effects.
“There is an increased level of violence because of drug use in the correctional system,” Smith said.
Godin told CTV News some are taking extreme measures to get the drug into prisons, including launching tennis balls into the facilities. Recently, there have been reports of individuals using drones to drop drugs into prisons.
Both Smith and Godin said they have been discussing safety for members with government officials.
With files from Angela Jung