KENORA — The union that represents correctional staff is crediting the actions of Kenora jail staff with saving the lives of five inmates.
OPSEU says they rushed to provide first aid to inmates who overdosed on fentanyl over a 24-hour period on July 20.
Officers and two nurses responded initially to three overdoses reported just after 9:00 p.m. that day.
According to a union statement issued Monday, since the only available ambulance would have taken an hour to get to the jail, officers drove the inmates to hospital in secure vans.
In the absence of 24-hour nursing, nurses then stayed on all night at the jail, which the union said proved fortunate, as early the next day, two more inmates overdosed on fentanyl.
OPSEU said that, once again, "officers and nurses saved their lives."
Because no officers could be spared to take the inmates to hospital, it said the jail superintendent jumped in to help, along with an OPP superintendent.
Union vice-president Eduardo Almeida, who is a corrections officer, said this kind of situation is all too familiar to him.
"Working in the Hamilton facility, I saw the terrible toll that drugs took on inmates, as well as the compassionate response of staff...We actually spend much of our time keeping inmates safe from other inmates and, as in this case, themselves," Almeida said.
The OPSEU statement noted that the incidents occurred in the wake of a situation at the Kenora facility last month when two asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 were detected.
President Warren (Smokey) Thomas said "We saw last month's clear-headed reaction to COVID-19. Now we see another example of corrections staff showing calm, dedication and ingenuity to prevent a tragedy."
Thomas said he hopes the incidents in Kenora remind the provincial government that more needs to be done to help front-line staff cope with such cases.
"Our members need more training and resources in dealing with inmates with mental health and addictions issues...They still haven't got them. This is hazardous for inmates and staff alike," he said.
Late Monday, the Ministry of the Solicitor General issued the following statement in response to a query from Tbnewswatch about the recent fentanyl overdoses:
The ministry recognizes our hardworking correctional officers and thanks them for keeping our communities safe.
We are committed to supporting frontline correctional staff. Ontario recently announced $500 million that will support the hiring of more than 500 new staff to help address challenges within the correctional system such as mental health and addiction issues. This significant new investment in correctional services demonstrates our commitment to supporting frontline correctional staff in their vital job of keeping Ontario's communities safe.
Last week, we hired 59 new correctional officers who have completed the redesigned Corrections Foundational Training. This modernized training program places increased emphasis on key areas such as human rights, mental health, health and safety, and teamwork.
Many inmates are dealing with complex health issues, such as substance abuse and addictions, as well as mental health issues.
Inmates who are identified at the time of admission as having substance use issues, including opioid addiction, are assessed and provided needed health care supports. As correctional staff are often the first on scene, naloxone is located at strategic locations at all of our facilities and correctional staff are trained in how to administer nasal naloxone while waiting for health care staff to arrive, or in situations where nurses are not available.
The ministry also partners with various social and health service agencies to provide inmates with addictions services while they are in custody, and to assist them to continue to access supports when they are discharged.
Additionally, Ontario recently announced $800,000 for the Kenora Bear Clan Patrol to help people who may be experiencing mental health and addictions issues in the area.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story stated that nurses who dealt with the first three overdoses stayed overnight at the hospital. OPSEU issued a correction to its statement Tuesday morning, clarifying that the nurses stayed overnight at the jail.