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The death of one man who, along with a group of his fellow inmates, appears to have suffered from a drug overdose at the Maplehurst prison in Milton, Ont., is underlining growing concerns that the response for addictions in prisons is inadequate.

Police say that around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, emergency services responded to the Maplehurst Correctional Complex for six inmates in a single cell block in need of medical attention due to suspected drug overdoses. The patients were taken to hospital where one was pronounced dead. The other five were all expected to live and one remained in hospital as of Wednesday, according to the Ministry of the Solicitor-General.

Halton Regional Police said they cannot comment at this time on the type of drug used, how it was used or how it came into the possession of the involved inmates.

If an overdose is confirmed, it would not be the first time an overdose has resulted in death in the Ontario prison system.

Last spring, the Office of the Chief Coroner held a month-long inquest into the overdose deaths of eight men at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. It produced 62 recommendations including the need for the increased availability of naloxone kits, an opioid blocker administered during overdose.

Marion Ringuette, press secretary for the Office of the Solicitor-General, said in an e-mailed statement that 80 per cent of the recommendations were “completed or underway,” including hiring an addictions counsellor and psychologist at Hamilton-Wentworth, the installation of a parcel X-ray scanner, the housing of new inmates in a separate intake area for 24 to 72 hours before transfer to general population and canine searches.

Whole-body scanners had also been installed at all 25 Ontario correctional facilities except Fort Frances owing to “infrastructure challenges," she said.

Ms. Ringuette also said naloxone was available in all facilities to be administered by nurses or correctional staff.

“Crime, violence, mental health and addictions are complex issues that cannot be solved overnight or by the provincial government alone,” she said. “This is a broader community issue and our government is committed to working with community partners.”

But not everyone supports the way the recommendations have been implemented – or even accept that they are being implemented at all.

“I know they’ve hired a few addictions nurses recently, but they don’t have anywhere near enough to handle the population,” said Kevin Egan, a defence lawyer who represented a family at the 2018 inquest. He said inmates needed not only increased frequency of supervision but more education about how to address their drug addiction.

Chris Jackel, the corrections division chair for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said there had been “a little bit” of naloxone training to officers.

“All it really is, is like an e-learning training – you log onto a computer and you walk through a PowerPoint presentation … and then that’s the training.”

On top of training, one of the inquest’s recommendations was to equip all correctional officers with Narcan, the brand name of naloxone. But Mr. Jackel said these kits are often housed centrally and were “few and far between.”

Claire Bodkin, a prison health researcher and member of the prison health committee at the College of Family Physicians, said provincial facilities, which house inmates for shorter durations, are more vulnerable to these issues than federal ones.

“People are constantly going in and out of prison,” she said, typically resulting in more drugs coming in and making it more difficult for health-care professionals to assess and support inmates.

In the short term, she recommended giving every inmate access to naloxone while in the medium-term advising for harm-reduction measures such as alarms in cells as well as methadone treatment and needle exchanges.

“We’re also seeing emergency departments start people on suboxone, specifically, because it’s a very safe, very easy medication to start people on, especially if they’re in a bit of withdrawal,” she said, adding that withdrawal was required to start on that specific treatment.

“Ideally, obviously, people wouldn’t be in prison and we’d be supporting them in their substance use disorder in the community,” she said. “But if they are going to be in prison, then I think we have a responsibility to provide equitable care to what’s available in the community.”

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