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In the past three weeks, at least nine federal correctional officers have been exposed to the lethal drug, according to one union official, putting staff on high alert for a substance they often can’t detect until it’s too late.

The surge of illicit fentanyl endangering lives on Canadian streets has now flooded into the country's prisons, posing a greater threat to those working in an already perilous job.

In the past three weeks, at least nine federal correctional officers have been exposed to the lethal drug, according to one union official, putting staff on high alert for a substance they often can't detect until it's too late. There have been no reported fatalities involving correctional officers, but several inmate deaths owing to fentanyl exposure.

"The problem with fentanyl is that it's so small that it can be easily hidden or mixed in with substances," said Ryan DeBack, the Prairies region vice-president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. "It can be airborne, it can be in powder form. I could walk into a cell without seeing it and suddenly I'm [exposed]."

The stories behind the prison fentanyl exposures demonstrate the guile required to traffic drugs within jails.

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In mid-July, several Correctional Service staff members were exposed while inspecting inmate mail. "Someone was sending fentanyl through institutional mail," Mr. DeBack said. "There were drugs in this one letter that was opened on a desk. Minutes later six staff are exposed." The opioid antidote naloxone was administered to two of the workers.

In another case, fentanyl powder blew into a correctional officer's face as they were inspecting an inmate's book.

Mr. DeBack was informed of another instance in which an inmate's fan blew some fentanyl powder into the air. "An officer breathed that in and down he goes," Mr. DeBack said.

Correctional Service Canada started alerting staff to the dangers of fentanyl exposure as far back as 2012, according to spokesperson Avely Serin. Last month, the Service instructed staff to use specific protective equipment when the presence of fentanyl or its analogues is suspected. The equipment includes nitrile gloves, masks and safety goggles. Prison medical staff have access to naloxone. "Despite all the best precautions, there may be rare occasions when someone is accidentally exposed to fentanyl or other highly toxic substances," Ms. Serin said.

The union argues that those safe handling requirements only kick in once staff have detected three grams of highly toxic substances, whereas other emergency responders don protective gear when just one gram is detected. "We're saying that's not right," Union of Canadian Correctional Officers national president Jason Godin said. "The problem with fentanyl is that just something the size of a grain of salt can harm you."

Officers working for provincial jail agencies have been exposed to fentanyl as well. Earlier this year at Quinte Detention Centre, near Kingston, several inmates and staff were hospitalized for fentanyl exposure.

Ontario officers have asked for more training about how to perform certain vital tasks in the possible presence of fentanyl. "When we do CPR, for example, we still have a requirement for a mouth-to-mouth component," said Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the corrections division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. "If you're trying to save someone's life, you're not necessarily paying attention to residue on their body or outfit. How we deal with all this is a huge concern for our staff."

Illicit drug use is prevalent among inmates. A 2007 survey of 3,370 inmates found that 17 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women injected drugs in prison. For non-injection drugs, that rate increased to 34 per cent among men and 25 per cent for women.

The fentanyl problem inside prisons is a reflection of the epidemic raging outside. In B.C., 780 people died of illicit drug overdoses in the first half of 2017, with fentanyl being detected in 78 per cent of cases. Between Jul. 27 and Aug. 1, six people died in Toronto from suspected overdoses.

"There is a direct correlation between the increase of fentanyl across the country and what we're now seeing in our institutions," Mr. Vieselmeyer said. "We're still at the early stages. It's only going to get worse."

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller prescribed for sever and chronic pain. It is highly addictive.

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