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“I was high for my entire stay:” Why B.C. prisons aren’t helping addicts

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October 13, 2017 - 6:30 PM

His parents thought a few months in jail would force him to sober up. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Zack — not his real name — says it was almost easier getting drugs inside Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre than out on the street.

“I was high for my entire stay,” he says.

Even if he wanted to sober up, he says a lack of support resources and a prison culture built on using, trafficking, and obtaining drugs made it virtually impossible.

With an opioid overdose crisis taking lives at an alarming rate across B.C., correctional facilities have a unique opportunity to make a difference. While numbers show overdose numbers are far better in provincial jails than even suburban homes, some users say more could be done. 

B.C. Corrections provided a lengthy response to some of our inquiries, including measures to keep drugs out of jail, and programs to help offenders. We also learned about big changes in how health services are delivered in B.C. prisons, a shift that may address some of the problems Zack shared from his stay at KRCC.

Fearing retribution from other inmates due to the information he shared, Zack spoke to iNFOnews.ca on the condition of anonymity. Certain dates and facts have also been omitted from this article to protect his identity.

Inmates have found other uses for Kinder eggs.
Inmates have found other uses for Kinder eggs.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Flickr

KINDER SURPRISE

Inmates call it a “packed suitcase.”

“You pack it where the sun don’t shine,” Zack says.

Kinder Eggs, in particular, are a popular vessel for carrying drugs into jail, and they often make it past the intake inspection — even the ‘bend over and cough’ check if they’re “far enough” in there.

Once inside and assigned a cell, Zack says he was high for the rest of his months-long stay. Between speed, heroin, fentanyl and “jail brews” he says most of the other inmates on his cell block were too.

One sought after substance was suboxone, or “jail heroin” — but it was hard to get. While the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General says inmates can request a referral for methodone or suboxone treatment, Zack says he never saw those requests filled. He says the only way he saw inmates get suboxone was by overdosing.

“If you were willing to (overdose) you would be rewarded, because if you used and overdosed you were immediately put on suboxone. It’s a big risk to take, but people took it,” Zack says.

The suboxone would then be sold or traded with other inmates.

Another method involved inmates up for release agreeing to pick up a load of drugs on the outside. The inmate would get the package and then purposefully breach his court conditions, thereby giving him a ticket back to jail with a packed suitcase, Zack says.

Zack admits that some people did get caught with contraband, and they suffered consequences like ‘seg’ (solitary confinement) but most got away with it. There were periodic room checks, he says, but it was easy to stash your stuff in your waistband. He says the only time there was a really thorough check was when someone overdosed. When that happened, he says all the inmates would toss their stuff to a particular inmate who would “pack it”. Then — and only then — would they call to notify the guard.

“That came before this guy’s life. That’s what it’s like in jail,” he says. 

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which encompasses B.C. Corrections, wouldn't say how or how often cells are swept for drugs. Whatever they are doing, they are keeping ahead of the B.C. State of Emergency on overdoses. In 2016, KRCC recorded 12 non-fatal overdoses out of 2,240 admissions; none of them fatal. So far in 2017, of the 852 admissions, there have been no overdoses recorded, the ministry said.

“Staff receive extensive and on-going training on how to detect and search for contraband as well as to look for signs of drug impairment.  When staff determine an inmate may be under the influence of contraband, they will be sent to health care staff for assessment and/or treatment as required. In addition, inmates found with contraband can face internal charges under the Correction Act Regulation as well as criminal charges,” the ministry said.

Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre
Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre

GETTING HELP

Zack has struggled with addiction for years. After getting arrested, his parents thought they were helping him with a dose of tough love by not bailing him out.

“I was angry at first,” Zack says. “I wanted to keep using. But as soon as I found out I was going to be high in jail, I didn’t really care.”

Part of him still knew he needed help. But where do you start when you’re in the throes of addiction, surrounded by other addicts?

“I wanted to go on suboxone,” he says. “The jail has a full time doctor to prescribe methodone and suboxone…. I was told there was a six month wait to get on those drugs in jail. Other people in there (for) eight to nine months were still waiting.”

Lawyers and judges often cite “rehabilitation” in sentencing hearings, and suggest offenders take full advantage of various programs in jail. But according to Zack, those programs left a lot to be desired.

“They offer church every Sunday — a one hour sermon,” he says. “They have things on the walls that say, ‘this is not for the rest of your life, this is a period of your life.’”

Every three weeks, he says, there was an Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

“It was a disaster,” Zack says. “Two guys would come, one from AA and one from NA, they would show up and share a bit about their story and try to run it as a normal meeting.”

The problem, as Zack sees it, is the meetings weren’t broken down into small groups, or offered one on one. Instead, the entire cell block — some 40 guys —attended, he says, and no one wanted to show any kind of weakness.

“It’s like its own ecosystem in there. You’re either part of it or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re singled out,” he says.

The first time we asked the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General how often AA and NA meetings were held, and how many inmates attended, they said “on a frequent and ongoing basis.” The second time we asked, they said meetings are held every other week at the Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre, and are attended by an average of 10 to 20 inmates. They added that “participation varies depending on the needs of the current inmate population at any given time.”

As part of the intake process, inmates are seen by a nurse and a mental health screener within 24 hours. Based on the results, the ministry said in its written response, inmates are referred to mental health professionals or medical staff for further treatment and an individualized care plan, as required. The assessment includes an examination of the inmate’s known history of drug or substance abuse, and they are referred to physicians or psychologists as necessary, and can include a referral to Opiate Agonist Therapy (Suboxone or Methadone) for inmates who are identified as opiate-dependant, the ministry said.

When asked specifically about that assessment process, Zack says they were “constantly told there was a six month wait to see the doctor” and says he never knew anyone who actually received an individualized care plan.

Image Credit: File photo

The ministry does seem to get full marks from a range of players for its 32-bed Guthrie House in Nanaimo that combines work, treatment and counselling to tackle the root causes of addiction and a record of success back to the community. 

But that's not how it is in most other provincial prisons. Zack says in his experience, there was no one other than a legal aid worker — with a long waiting list — to help with the transition from jail back into the community.

“Making drug and alcohol counsellors (available) would be huge in there. Someone to help you set up what you’re going to do when you get out, if you want to go to treatment…. I’d have been happy to talk one on one and know this info wasn’t going to be passed around the jail,” he says.

Zack says the jail was doing some things right. The work experience program, for example, and upgrading courses, were in his opinion quite helpful and well implemented.

“It seemed like their program to help with school and work was half decent. Anything to do with drugs was awful,” he says.

A NEW APPROACH TO INMATE HEALTH EMERGES

As iNFOnews.ca was researching this story, a significant shift occurred in how health services are administered in B.C.’s ten correctional centres. As of Oct. 1, the Provincial Health Services Authority assumed responsibility for delivering medical services. B.C. is one of the first provinces in Canada to move responsibility for correctional health care services from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Health, as recommended by the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the World Health Organization.

Due to the recent changes, the Public Health Services Authority was unable to answer all our questions about wait lists and statistics, but provided context about its mandate and approach.

“The main drivers are two-fold,” says Andrew MacFarlane, the provincial executive director for correctional health services. “One, to help enhance the quality of care, and standardize it across the ten sites. And then also, to (provide) transitional support to connect people into the community.”

He says the health authority is committed to providing continued access to suboxone for offenders coming in with an opioid replacement prescription, and will create a plan for those not already on it, as needed. The emphasis of the new approach is on providing a continuum of care as the offender transitions back into the community, MacFarlane says. To help administer the plan, he says new positions have already been added at both KRCC and the Okanagan Correctional Centre, including full time access and transitions nurses and mental health and substance abuse nurses. 

Before joining the provincial health authority, MacFarlane oversaw management of mental health and substance use in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The excitement in his voice is apparent when he speaks about the direction being taken inside B.C.’s correctional facilities. Referencing the current opioid overdose crisis, MacFarlane says he is optimistic that this new approach will help offenders battling drug addiction.

“I feel we do have a moment to intervene when someone comes in,” he says. “Any time someone has experienced negative consequences to their use (it) is an opportunity for counsellors, general practitioners, and family members to be able to become involved and help develop the discrepancy between where that client is, and where they want to be.”

Because the length of an offender’s stay can vary from a month to two years less a day (anything longer is served federally), MacFarlane says it can be a challenge getting supports and plans in place before the inmate is released. He says the goal of new transitional nurses will be to develop a care plan that goes beyond prison walls.

'DONE'

The shortfall in addiction services, if it’s anything like what Zack describes, is significant. The link between drugs and crime is well documented. In 2010, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security delivered a report in the House of Commons and said 80 per cent of offenders serving prison sentences of two or more years have problems with drugs and alcohol.

Zack says nearly everyone on his block was in for a drug-related offence. And while not every one of them was ready and willing to go into treatment, many were.

“A good handful of people were so done with this shit,” he says.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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