Inquest: Rampant drug use in jail calls for security review

The Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre should conduct a security review to determine how illicit drugs are being smuggled into the jail, according to one of the recommendations made after a coroner’s inquest into an inmate overdose death.

The B.C. Coroners Service released 13 recommendations made by a seven-person jury that last week heard details surrounding the death of 33-year-old Bradley Martins Graham, who died March 6, 2016, of a drug overdose in his cell. Graham had taken heroin laced with fentanyl and methamphetamine that was smuggled into the Wilkinson Road jail.

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The jury heard from B.C. Corrections officers that illicit drugs are rampant in jails and difficult to intercept, even with the introduction of body scanners for inmates. A B.C. Corrections warden who led a critical-incident review into Graham’s death raised concerns about delays in getting Graham onto the opioid-replacement therapy Suboxone, even after he asked repeatedly for help managing his heroin addiction.

The jury heard that addiction treatment for inmates has improved since October 2017, which is when the province’s Public Health Services Authority took over inmate health care from a private for-profit contractor, Chiron Health Services.

Six of the recommendations were aimed at practices at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre. Staff should conduct a review of access procedures for emergency vehicles at the front gate, the jury said, which was in response to concerns from a B.C. Ambulance paramedic that there was a three-to-four minute delay in allowing the advanced life support ambulance into the jail to treat Graham.

B.C. Corrections should also review policies that might deter inmates from pressing the panic button in their cells, the jury recommended, which comes as a result of an admission by Graham’s cellmate that he was reluctant to press the call button when Graham was overdosing because there was contraband in the cell.

The jail should also ensure staff are properly trained to deal with a medical emergency when no nurse is on duty, the jury said.

Dean Purdy, president of the union representing B.C. Corrections officers, said low wages, high stress and chronic staffing shortages have created retention problems among correctional officers, hampering the training process. “The job of a correctional officer is becoming very difficult,” Purdy said. “You add drugs into the equation, that causes a higher element of violence, both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-officer violence.”

There were 124 reported assaults against correctional officers in 2018, Purdy said, a number that has steadily risen every year for the last five years.

Jails have become the “default mental-health facility” in B.C., Purdy said, an issue that is exacerbated by the prevalence of illicit drugs and gang members who battle for control of the drug supply.

Saanich police should increase resources for intelligence gathering to reduce drug-smuggling into jails, the jury said.

Five of the recommendations were aimed at the Public Health Services Authority, including: immediate referral of inmates with addictions to treatment programs; a more proactive approach by nurses to offer treatment instead of waiting for staff or inmate referral; and enhanced support for inmates to transition to the community once they’re released.

Lynn Pelletier, vice-president of B.C. Mental Health and Substance Use Services, which is part of the PHSA, said in a statement that the agency “is committed to providing the best possible care for patients, including people who are incarcerated.”

Both agencies will review the coroner’s full report and the recommendations, she said.

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