Ontario is installing new ion-based drug scanning devices at 10 jails across the province in an effort to stop contraband from making its way behind bars — a move the government says is meant to enhance inmate and staff security, but is prompting concerns about their efficacy.
The announcement comes just days after a CBC News report revealed jail guards at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. scanned a 26-year-old man as negative for illicit substances before he died with a ruptured bag of fentanyl hidden inside his body.
Jordan Sheard fatally overdosed in June 2020 after guards twice scanned him for contraband — clearing him both times — before he died of acute drug toxicity attributed to fentanyl, etizolam (a depressant similar to valium) and possibly also a tranquilizer.
The ion scanners announced Thursday "identify trace elements of drugs and are an added layer of security available to correctional staff to help prevent illegal substances from entering facilities," the province said in a news release.
The estimated cost of the rollout is $385,000, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General told CBC News.
Province quietly began rolling out devices last fall
Ion scanners are "a completely different technology" than the x-ray body scanners first introduced by the province in 2016, said Ryan Graham, co-chair of the provincial health and safety committee for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the union representing jail guards.
Ontario first piloted an ion scanner at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in 2018, saying it was successfully used to find various drugs, including fentanyl.
"We realized that this technology was providing great results and putting in place additional protective measures for the institutions," Graham said, adding his committee has been recommending the technology for the last few years to address what he called an opioid "crisis" in Ontario jails.
According to Graham, the province first agreed to roll out the 10 additional scanners in November 2020, but only announced it publicly Thursday.
Speaking to CBC News on Thursday, Sheard's mother, Angela Vos said she was happy to see improvements to the system, but continues to have concerns about the amount of training guards receive in reading scans and the lack of rehabilitative treatment for individuals with addictions who find themselves incarcerated.
'Jordan could have been saved'
"The timing breaks my heart," Vos said. "I feel like everything is just too late because Jordan could have been saved by all the failed scans before him and the inquest that recommended better-quality scanning and training."
"I really believe keeping people out of jail, hospitals, decriminalizing, community programs, rehabilitation, safe use, safe supply and meeting people where they are," she said. "But when there are no other answers and funding for such support is limited... it is a move in the right direction."
Ion scanners have been in place for several years in Canada's federal prison system, but inmates' families have long pointed out the tools have identified false positives at an "alarming rate."
A review of international research into the devices on the Correctional Service of Canada's website acknowledges the technology isn't flawless.
"One drawback of IMS technology is that it measures drug particulates down to the nanogram, identifying 'false positives frequently," it says.
The review also cites one study that found cocaine was "the only drug that was reliably detected," and another that found finer-powdered substances were more successfully detected while larger pills or other substances were less likely to be identified.
Ion scanners not flawless, researcher notes
On the whole, it says that while scanners are a useful tool, but "these devices are often oversensitive and are limited in their ability to detect certain forms of drugs."
Sarah Speight, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa researching deaths in provincial custody, said the Thursday's announcement is "serious cause for concern."
These scanners do not tell us definitively who is carrying drugs – they tell us who is carrying trace particles of drugs on their bodies. - Sarah Speight, University of Ottawa
Speight noted false positives can result in serious consequences for inmates including impacting time spent in segregation and delayed court appearances, and worries the ion scanners will lead to the same problems.
"These scanners do not tell us definitively who is carrying drugs — they tell us who is carrying trace particles of drugs on their bodies," she said, adding trace particles can easily be picked up by handling money or having used well before being arrested. Even the antacid Zantac can show up as a positive for cocaine, she pointed out.
"As someone who visits loved ones in the federal system, I have had regular contact with these machines," she said, saying families with someone inside wash their clothes directly before visiting, keep them sealed in a plastic bag, only putting them on immediately before a visit to prevent being falsely flagged.
"If visitors without contact with drugs go to such pains to avoid the detection of trace elements of drugs that can be picked up from something as simple as contact with money, what consequences will this have for people who may be in regular contact with drugs by virtue of their addiction or living situations but who have no legitimate presence of contraband in the body?"
Scanners expected to be fully operational by summer
At this point, she says, the province should direct its efforts to things like reducing the number of inmates being held while awaiting trial and making naloxone available directly to inmates to help keep one another safe.
Nevertheless, says Graham, the union representing provincial jail guards "views this as a great investment into the protection of our institutional workplaces and looks to the future to hopefully see additional funding to source a unit for every institution."
The scanners will be rolled out to: Maplehurst Correctional Complex, Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, Central East Correctional Centre, Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, Kenora Jail, Thunder Bay Jail, Sudbury Jail, Toronto South Detention Centre, Central North Correctional Centre and the South West Detention Centre.
The province says work is underway to train staff at those institutions and to have the scanners fully operational by this summer.