One-third considering leaving corrections because of the perceived risks related to the drug
Correctional officers in Western Canada fear that fentanyl use by prisoners in holding facilities is putting the workers at greater risk, according to a recent study by two University of Alberta sociologists.
The presence of the drug presents a crisis that is “dramatically different from previous drug crises, and of such recent origin that no on-the-ground empirical research exists on how these opioids are altering the health and risk profile of prisons,” said researchers Sandra Bucerius and Kevin Haggerty in their paper titled Fentanyl Behind Bars: The Implications of Synthetic Opiates for Prisoners and Correctional Officers.
“The presence of fentanyl in prisons has significantly influenced how prisoners experience prison and relate to each other, and how correctional officers perceive their job. [They] now identify fentanyl as the greatest risk to their safety in prisons,” the researchers said after interviewing 587 inmates and 131 correctional officers in four prisons in Western Canada. “When asked about the risk radical groups pose in prison, correctional officers would immediately suggest that fentanyl poses a much greater risk to their safety.”
Correctional officers estimated the monthly number of overdoses ranged between zero and nine in any unit housing between 50 and 80 inmates, and it exposes inmates and correctional officers alike to the drug, which may lead to contamination.
“When asked about how many of their fellow prisoners have substance abuse issues, the answers ranged between 85 and 90 per cent among our male participants, and 90 to 100 for our female participants,” said the researchers.
Fear of personal exposure to the drug and the possibility of widespread institutional opioid contamination also leads workers to consider leaving their jobs.
“About a third of the officers in our sample stated that they are considering leaving corrections because of the perceived risks related to fentanyl,” the researchers said.
Officers are also frequently forced to respond to overdose emergencies and resuscitate overdosed prisoners with naloxone. The researchers suggest that measures be introduced to address the drug-related risks in these facilities.
“At a minimum, what is now required is a public discussion about introducing measures to confront these prison-based risks,” said Haggerty.