Human rights complaint alleges lack of harm-reduction programs puts Canadian inmates at risk of overdose

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      Since the arrival of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, it's become especially dangerous for B.C. residents who struggle with a drug addiction to enter a Canadian prison.

      That's because when they are released, they often still crave opioids, and since their drug supply was cut off or minimized when they began their prison term, they are returned to the streets with a lower tolerance and therefore at a greater risk of fatal overdose.

      According to an April 2018 B.C. Coroners Service report, of people who died of an illicit-drug overdose in B.C. between January 2016 and July 2017, 66 percent were under B.C. Corrections supervision or had spent time in a provincial prison during their lifetime.

      "The increase in mortality among released prisoners who formerly used opiate drugs is attributed to loss of tolerance and erroneous judgment of dose on return to opiate use," the report reads.

      It means that it is especially important for Canadian prisons to offer inmates addiction-treatment options. But it is often inside Canadian prisons where such services are not available. While options for treatment generally are available in B.C. Corrections facilities, the same cannot be said for institutions operated by Correction Service Canada (CSC).

      Now a B.C. group of prisoners' advocates has filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights

      Commission with the goal of expanding access to addiction-treatment options inside federal facilities.

      "WCPJS [West Coast Prison Justice Society] is concerned that prisoners are at great risk of fatal overdose, and HIV and hepatitis C infection because of barriers to treatment with Suboxone or methadone, as well as a lack of adequate harm reduction initiatives and psychosocial therapy," reads a June 4 media release.

      "Other prisoners reported having been cut off Suboxone or methadone, some cold-turkey, and suffering painful and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, on the basis of unproven speculation that they were trying to share medication with other prisoners," it continues.

      "The complaint asserts that these practices discriminate against prisoners who suffer from addiction, which is considered a disability under human rights law, as well as against Indigenous and Black prisoners who are disproportionately affected."

      Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of WCPJS's Prisoners’ Legal Services, is quoted in the release noting the benefits of addictions treatment for inmates extends beyond those individuals.

      “Providing treatment for opioid use disorder helps prisoners to heal, rehabilitate and become productive, law abiding members of the community,” she says quoted there.

      There were 1,448 illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. in 2017. That compares to an average of 204 deaths per year recorded across the province from 2001 to 2010. In 2017, fentanyl was associated with more than 80 percent of fatal overdoses in B.C.