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Canadian prison guards advocate for overdose prevention sites after B.C. inmate dies

A handout photo shows the items included in a kit supplied through the Prison Exchange Needle Program. (Source: John Randle, UCCO SACC CSN) A handout photo shows the items included in a kit supplied through the Prison Exchange Needle Program. (Source: John Randle, UCCO SACC CSN)
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Canadian prison guards are raising alarm over the country’s approach to drug use in federal jails after the death of an inmate in B.C. this week.

Kelly Michael Richet died in custody on Tuesday, nearly seven months to the day after he began serving his five-year sentence for manslaughter at Mountain Institution in Agassiz, Correctional Service Canada said in a statement Friday.

While the CSC did not provide a cause of death, a release issued the same day by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers states Richet fatally overdosed on fentanyl.

Richet's death comes one month after CSC announced plans to implement a Prison Needle Exchange Program at Mountain Institution, giving inmates access to clean drug paraphernalia in their personal cells.

“UCCO-SACC-CSN strongly opposes the use of PNEP and has advocated that the CSC instead deploy supervised overdose prevention sites,” the union wrote in its statement Friday.

PNEPs have existed in Canada since 2018, when the federal government rolled out a pilot program in certain jails.

“In keeping with the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, the Government of Canada is committed to protecting the health and safety of all Canadians, including federal inmates, through continued access to harm reduction and evidence-based health services,” Ralph Goodale, the former public safety minister, said in a statement announcing the initiative.

To date, nine federal prisons have a PNEP in place, two of which are in B.C. – the Mission and Fraser Valley institutions.

“Before an individual can participate in the PNEP program, CSC must complete a Threat Risk Assessment (TRA), to confirm that it is suitable to allow the individual to possess a needle, similar to the one currently being used for Epipens and needles for insulin use,” the CSC said in a statement to CTV News.

However, giving out clean needles and supporting inmates to use drugs alone is only going to cause more overdoses, argues John Randle, UCCO-SACC-CSN’s pacific region president.

“Overdoses are almost becoming a daily thing. It’s happening a lot more now than I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Randle, who’s worked as a correctional officer in B.C. since 2010.

“Drugs shouldn’t be in prisons in the first place,” he emphasized in an interview with CTV News.

“Ultimately, it’s a tough pill for us to swallow, but we have to deal with the cards we’ve been dealt, so now we’re advocating for the safest of the two options."

THE SAFEST OPTION

Through an OPS model, inmates would use drugs in the company of nurses or health-care professionals at prisons. Randle says this is the preferred option because it would reduce the risk of fatal overdoses while giving inmates access to addiction treatments with the goal of getting off drugs.

“When people come into federal custody, they’re there because they’ve committed some serious crimes, some of which are linked to addiction,” Randle said.

“If we’re just going to allow them to stay in our facilities, allow them to continue participating in the drug culture, and then release them back into the community, the message ultimately being sent is, ‘Sorry community, you’re dealing with them again because we don’t want to do it.'”

‘WE FEEL HELPLESS’

Unsupervised drug use in prisons also poses danger to other inmates and staff, the union emphasizes.

“Two officers were exposed to fentanyl this week, with health consequences which could have been deadly without first aid,” reads the UCCO-SACC-CSN statement.

It’s believed Richet was either smoking or snorting fentanyl prior to his death, and Randle says the two officers were likely exposed to the drug while performing CPR or searching his cell.

One of the officers was administered naloxone, a medication used to reverse or reduce the effects of opioids.

“As a correction officer, it's kind of your worst nightmare, to be honest with you,” he admits.

When asked how fentanyl got into Mountain Institution, Randle couldn’t say, but speculated drones may have played a role.

“Drone delivery is the biggest issue we’re facing in terms of getting drugs into prison. It’s becoming a crisis for us, we feel helpless,” he said.

SOME HOPE ON THE HORIZON

Ultimately, it’s up to Ottawa to decide whether to expand OPS access to more prisons.

Alberta’s Drumheller Institution houses Canada’s first-ever prison OPS, and another was established in July at Nova Scotia’s Springhill Institution.

“Since their establishment there have been no fatal overdoses at these sites,” reads the CSC’s statement. “These OPS are the only existing prison-based supervised consumption sites known worldwide.”

The agency says it’s committed to expanding access to both PNEP and OPS across the country.

“Mental health and problematic substance use are first-and-foremost a health issue, and we continue to work to break down stigma, while providing effective and appropriate treatments,” writes the CSC, adding the safety and security of staff, the public and inmates will remain paramount.

It declined to comment further on Richet’s death.

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