After battling clandestine drug use for decades inside Canada’s prison system, it might seem counterintuitive to learn that a site where inmates can use illegal drugs under medical supervision will be open soon inside Collins Bay Instituion.
Planning and consultations are underway to implement an Overdose Prevention Service (OPS) at Collins Bay Institution --- the third of its kind in Canada, according to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). As part of this initiative, the institution is currently undergoing renovations in order to provide these life-saving services. The renovations are taking place safely and quickly to implement OPS at the earliest opportunity, and to offer services to those inmates that require it, according to CSC.
Asked for more information, Kerry Gatien of CSC Media Relations responded by saying, “The safety and security of our staff and offenders is a top priority. As part of its efforts, CSC works closely with local police agencies and communities to prevent contraband, including illicit drugs and substances, from entering its institutions. Inmates found to be in possession of, or dealing in, illicit drugs can face administrative consequences, disciplinary sanctions, and/or criminal charges.”
However, she also pointed out that “like much of Canadian society, CSC is experiencing the effect of Canada's opioid crisis. Consistent with the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, and in recognition that problematic substance use is a health issue, CSC has implemented a range of prevention, treatment, and harm reduction measures to work with inmates in response to this need.”
It should be noted that, as first revealed by Kingstonist, Collins Bay Insitution has dealt with numerous drug overdoses so far in 2023.
According to CSC, an OPS includes consumption rooms within the institutional health care centre, where health care staff are available to provide health teaching, counselling, and emergency response in the event of a medical crisis. Participants will use self-supplied substances and safely dispose of any used equipment and leftover substances. Participants will remain in the OPS for 30 minutes, or longer as needed, after using the substances for the purpose of monitoring for signs of an overdose. The OPS will be available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.
As such, Gatien continued, “participants using the Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) will not be disciplined solely for using the service. However, using illicit substances outside of the OPS may result in disciplinary measures and/or criminal charges."
In an attempt to understand how this challenging policy will be implemented, Kingstonist reached out to Chris Bucholtz, Ontario Regional President for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO).
Bucholtz explained, “The union [doesn't] want… illegal drugs coming into our institutions… so we don't condone or want to condone the use.”
However, he said that overdose prevention sites were the “lesser of two evils” correctional officers had been presented with: “The court has mandated the CSC to come up with some kind of program to mitigate the risk of infectious disease. CSC then took a look at PNEP [Prison Needle Exchange Programs]. We, the union, we're going to fight the CSC every step of the way on the PNEP program. We do not want needles in cells.”
Bucholtz said in regard to the overdose prevention system, “We don't like it… but it's better to have that program than needles in our cells, right? The accountability then is on [the institution's] health services; that's where it belongs, not on correctional officers."
"So with this program... there's far less possibility of overdoses when [drugs are consumed] under supervision of Health Care," Bucholtz noted, calling the whole thing a “moral dilemma” for his members.
“We know there's illegal drugs getting in… from drone drops and other means. Yet there's a radius inside where we can't touch an individual who is going down to consume these drugs in Health Care... where it'll be located.”
Bucholtz pointed out that, if the program is working so well at Drumheller Institution in Alberta and Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia that it is being implemented now at Collins Bay, “As guards we’re asking the CSC… If OPS is working so well, then why wouldn't you go that way everywhere?”
The officers would much rather inmates have no access to needles in cells.
Upon investigation, a CSC website about the OPS program confirmed that the Drumheller and Springhill sites were “selected based on research that showed a higher number of overdoses at the institution, of which many were due to opioids.”
When asked why, specifically, Collins Bay Institution was chosen to be part of the OPS program and whether it too was facing an abnormally high number of overdoses, Gatien answered, “CSC remains committed to making decisions based on the evidence. Sites that are selected to host harm reduction services, such as an Overdose Prevention Site, are chosen based on population health needs, including data on overdoses at the site, many of which were due to opioids.”
“During the 2022-2023 fiscal year, there were 23 cases of overdose interrupted or suspected overdose interrupted at Collins Bay. So far this fiscal year, there have been nine incidents at [Collins Bay] of suspected overdose interrupted and eight incidents of overdose interrupted,” she continued.
“Thanks to the professionalism, vigilance, and prompt response from staff at the site during these incidents, there have been no deaths resulting from overdoses at the institution during this time period.”
The Collins Bay OPS opening has been slightly delayed, according to Bucholtz, who said it was supposed to have opened this month but, due to “infastructure problems,” it has now been postponed until October 2023.
Reached for comment, Gatien confirmed, "The information I have is that Collins Bay is currently undergoing renovations, which are taking place as safely and quickly as possible, in order to implement OPS at the earliest opportunity, and to offer services to those inmates that require it."
This is a developing story. Kingstonist will provide further coverage as more information becomes available.
Michelle Dorey Forestell, Kingston-based Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kingstonist.com