London jail deaths: Corrections officers, provincial officials offer very different takes on the drug use suspected in deaths of four inmates in past year

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Four deaths since the fall. Too many drugs. So many questions. As the jailhouse toll at London’s troubled Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre gains attention, Free Press reporter Randy Richmond delves into two very different perspectives on the dangerous role of drugs behind bars: one from the corrections officers on the frontlines, the other from politicians and bureaucrats at Queen’s Park.

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Asked for a list of what needs to change to stop drug smuggling and overdoses in jail, a London correctional officer was quick to reply:

Good management, scanner now, more nurses, updated first aid training, more correctional officers, an updated building.

And the chances of getting the help needed? he was asked.

“Same as me winning the lottery.”

EMDC is not ready for the opioid crisis, correctional officers say.

In fact, after the second drug-related death this summer, one warned the newspaper, “More will die.”

That officer said staff at EMDC have asked to carry naloxone, the drug that can stop an opioid overdose, but have been refused.

Nurses have access to the drug, but it can take time to get a nurse to an overdose, the officer said.

EMDC officers have asked for disposable suits to wear when handling overdoses and cleanups, but have been told no, he said.

“There’s no training for this big problem,” the officer added.

Like families of inmates, he wants Ontario to speed up installation of an X-ray body scanner at EMDC’s main facility.

But scanners alone won’t solve the drug-smuggling problem, another officer warned: Inmates adapt to new challenges.

Officers not only have to be well trained in identifying drugs, but get management backing to do further searches once drugs are suspected, he said.

Union officials and the province are still preparing how to handle the expected onslaught of opioid problems, said Monte Vieselmeyer, co-chair of the employee/employer relations committee with the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents correctional staff across the province.

There’s still a lot to discuss: Better training in dealing with fentanyl, the use and carrying of naloxone, handling equipment exposed to residue.

“I think we are at the early stages of making sure things are in place,” he said.


Ontario jails are well-equipped to deal with drug addiction, withdrawal and overdoses, the province’s corrections minister and ministry of corrections staff say.

“I am committed to ensuring that our institutions are providing appropriate care to inmates in need,” Marie-France Lalonde, the minister, wrote in an email after the latest death at EMDC.

“All inmates in provincial custody have access to a variety of supports including health care, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers,” Lalonde said.

“During admission to provincial custody, inmates who have been identified with substance use disorder, specifically opioid addiction, are assessed for withdrawal. This is an opportune time to initially identify people who may benefit from information on the risks associated with decreased opioid tolerance, including overdose.”

Ontario’s jails make opioid substitution therapy, both methadone and suboxone, available, she wrote.

“All standard health services are provided at EMDC including assessment, diagnosis, treatment, as well as opioid substitution therapy such as methadone or suboxone.”

The installation of a full-body, X-ray scanner for EMDC is still on track for this fall, Lalonde said.

Ministry spokesperson Andrew Morrison added that naloxone is available at all 26 provincial correctional facilities.

“All nursing staff have access to naloxone and would administer the medication when appropriate. Where necessary, inmates in medical distress are taken to local hospitals by paramedics (accompanied by correctional officers) for further care and treatment,” Morrison said in an email.

“The ministry also partners with various community agencies to provide inmates with needed social programs and services while they are in custody, and to assist inmates to continue to access support when they are discharged and return to live in the community.”

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80: percentage of men in federal prisons who have substance-abuse problems.

56: percentage of men in one Ontario jail reporting illegal drug use in previous year.*

4: Deaths with suspected drug connections at London’s EMDC since October, 2016.

*Source: 2014 University of Toronto study.

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— May 2016: Ontario promises EMDC will be one of its first jails to get new X-ray scanner.

— October 2016: London Free Press learns only intermittent centre, where weekend sentences are served, has scanner; main facility to wait until 2018.

— Death of Justin Thompson prompts promise scanner will go into EMDC earlier than planned.

— March 2017: Free Press reports promise means by November 2017.

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— Use X-rays to scan body.

— Entire scan takes less than eight seconds.

— Less radiation than one hour of sun exposure.

— Can find ceramics, drugs and weapons hidden in body cavities.

— $9.5 million promised for units in 26 Ontario jails.

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