Judge recommends drug screening for Edmonton jail staff in wake of overdose deaths

·4 min read
Two 2016 overdose deaths at the Edmonton Remand Centre have prompted a judge to reccomend random security screening of staff.  (Scott Neufeld/CBC - image credit)
Two 2016 overdose deaths at the Edmonton Remand Centre have prompted a judge to reccomend random security screening of staff. (Scott Neufeld/CBC - image credit)

Inquiries into two overdose deaths in the Edmonton Remand Centre have prompted a recommendation that all jail staff be subject to random security checks and drug screening.

Fatality inquiry reports into the deaths of Johnathan Glover and Peter Tut Khor were both published Wednesday, along with a series of recommendations for changes at the Edmonton jail.

Provincial court Judge Kirk MacDonald oversaw both inquiries. In his reports, he delved into the methods by which illicit drugs circulate throughout the jail — which he said is the common factor in the deaths.

Judges who oversee fatality inquiries can't assign blame, but they can make recommendations for how similar deaths could be prevented in the future.

Khor died of accidental fentanyl toxicity on May 14, 2016.

The report notes he was first brought to the Edmonton jail in May 2013 after being detained by the Canada Border Services Agency, and that he had a long history of mental illness. While in jail awaiting deportation to Sudan, Khor was housed alone because of a series of assaults on staff and other inmates.

Glover died on Sept. 1, 2016, of accidental drug poisoning by methamphetamine and fentanyl.

He had been admitted to the jail on May 29, 2016, and was under a protocol for inmates experiencing opiate withdrawal.

Jail staff must be adjustable to stop smuggling: MacDonald

A repeated theme in the inquiry testimony was "ERC staff need to be flexible because inmates always find ways to circumvent measures to smuggle contraband," MacDonald wrote.

During the inquiry, ERC staff gave evidence that most drugs get into the jail through personal possession; inmates hide them on or in their bodies inside condoms, Kinder eggs and plastic wrap.

The inquiry also heard that drugs sometimes come in through the mail. In rare instances corrections, employees and lawyers have been caught smuggling them in.

Once the drugs are inside the jail, inmates sometimes use a practice called "fishing," which is when inmates use a string or thread pulled from a blanket to pass packages between cells.

There are many methods to detect and seize drugs, but many seizures aren't documented, MacDonald wrote.

He also detailed the use of "dry cells:" cells with no toilet where inmates suspected of drug use are kept until they have had several bowel movements, to determine if they have any drugs on them.

Recommendations to increase screening

The judge made five recommendations for changes at the Edmonton jail, including:

  • All staff should be subject to random security and drug screening upon entry

  • All visitors be subject to security and drug screening — and possibly a body scan — on entry

  • Installation of a camera system on the unit where the deaths occurred, which cycles automatically through views of each cell

  • Inmates on a dry cell protocol be provided with security blankets which can't be easily torn to make fishing line

  • Cells on either side of an occupied dry cell should be kept vacant to cut down on fishing

Searching all staff every day would be both expensive and time-consuming, MacDonald noted, so random searches would be more practical and have enough of a deterrent effect.

The provincial government is still reviewing the recommendations, but correctional staff are already trained and prepared to respond to opioid overdoses, an Alberta Justice spokesperson said.

Amanada Hart-Dowhun, lawyer and Alberta Prison Justice Society president, thinks the recommendations to search staff and visitors could help slow the flow of drugs into the jail.

"The current approach of assuming that inmates are the only people who will smuggle drugs into a remand centre is naive at best," Hart-Dowhun told CBC News, noting the frequent and thorough searches inmates undergo.

She knows most people, whether corrections staff or visiting lawyers, would never attempt to smuggle drugs in, she said. But implementing random searches for staff may help address exceptions.

"If they're not searching anybody, it only takes one person. Especially with staff — if they're there every day — if you have one person who is willing to do that, they could be bringing drugs in every day," she said.

Hart-Dowhun realizes there are privacy issues.

She suggests searches similar to security checks lawyers, herself included, undergo when visiting federal correctional facilities are minimally invasive, thus would balance privacy and safety.

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