The Opioid Crisis in Canada's Prisons Part of a Larger Problem

Criminalizing the symptoms fails to address the underlying problems, says UAlberta doctoral researcher William Schultz

Donna McKinnon - 30 July 2018

According to Alberta Health Services, from January 2016 to end of November 2017 there were 122 suspected overdoses in Alberta's provincial correctional facilities. Of those, 115 (or 95%), were likely due to opioids, most commonly fentanyl. In mid-July, a lockdown was issued at the Edmonton Remand Centre after six suspected overdoses, and one death.

University of Alberta Criminology PhD student Will Schultz, a former correctional officer, is researching the effects of fentanyl within Alberta's prison system. He says the drug is a game changer.

Fentanyl, conventionally used as a pain killer, is 100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times more potent than heroin. It is often illegally manufactured, making the potency of each pill difficult to determine. Even in small doses, fentanyl can kill. It is also highly addictive, and according to Schultz, the withdrawal symptoms make people so sick they will do "absolutely anything" to avoid it.

"Fentanyl has changed the entire dynamic of the prison, which is, in essence, disproportionately full of opioid users," says Schultz. "It's like adding a drop of food colouring to a glass of water; once it's worked its way around the glass, everything is affected. Prisoners die, and sometimes, officers are accidentally contaminated. From safety considerations to policies on how you deal with prisoners, everything has changed, all based on one drug. It's terrifying."

Earlier this year, Schultz received federal funding from both the Trudeau Foundation and the Vanier Program - Canada's most prestigious doctoral level research scholarships - for his project, Deadly Attraction: Fentanyl, Drug Deaths, and the New Crisis in Canadian Prisons. Working with supervisor Sandra Bucerius and committee member Kevin Haggerty, Schultz's research looks at how people live, adapt and survive in Canadian prisons, particularly in the context of Canada's opioid crisis, and how that in turn has thrust prison systems and law enforcement agencies across the country into crisis.

As a research assistant for theUniversity of Alberta's Prison Project, Schultz will build on the work he did as a master's student, shifting his focus from violence in prisons to what he says is a much more insidious problem - opioid addiction.

Schultz quotes Dostoevsky - that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons - when he speaks of his own experiences as a correctional officer and now, as a researcher who routinely visits prisons in Western Canada to better understand the experiences its officers and inmates.

"In Canada, we like to tell ourselves that we have great prisons and that we do really good rehabilitative work, but if you actually walk into prisons, we don't," explains Schultz. "It's not wholly the fault of the agencies involved or the individual actors, necessarily, but when we stop and look at how society views and treats people with addictions, we basically treat them as human garbage. We treat addiction through criminalization rather than dedicated, long-term rehabilitation programs, and so, prisons are in essence, dumps, where we throw people away. The problem is trying to convince the larger society that change is justified, and that's where things like my research can come in."

Schultz conducts most of his research in remand centres, where the accused await trial. The average stay is two weeks, but some stay much longer. Those in remand custody are technically innocent, and in this nebulous state - where inmates may be found innocent and/or released at any point, the rehabilitative programs offered to convicted inmates may not be available to remand detainees. Schultz says that even offering these services may be interpreted as an unconscious declaration of guilt, and so there are few case workers, a lot of uncertainty, and little, if any, planning around release programs, all of which contribute to the cycle of violence and addiction.

"Prison is understudied. It's easy place to ignore. Why would you want to go talk to so-called bad people? One of the things I need to do with my research is simply emphasize the humanity of people in prison," says Schultz. "As a society, we misunderstand the larger social structures and pressures which create disadvantaged sub-classes. For example, Indigenous people make up three to four per cent of the population in Canada, six per cent in Alberta, and yet in Alberta alone, they make up 40 to 45% of the prison population. In the United States, there are a larger proportion of black people in the population, and it's the same or lower percentage in prison. When you look at it that way, it's a scary fact. We have a racialized over representation crisis right here in Canada, and we barely talk about it. However, when you go into prisons and hear the individual stories of trauma, illegal drug use and self-medication make a lot more sense."

Growing up on a farm in central Alberta, the eldest of five children, Schultz imagined a career in the military or as a RCMP officer. At the age of 20 and in need of a summer job, he began working at a correctional facility. "I was aiming for police and ended up in jail," he laughs.

After five years, Schultz came to the conclusion that his natural inclination to help, particularly in moments of crisis, would be better served through broader research into the social and systemic barriers to progressive reform within Canada's correctional facilities. A self-described "stereotypical poster child for conservativism", it was his experiences as a correctional officer and, eventually, as an academic, that shifted his mindset away from a more punitive approach to addiction to the potential benefits of harm reduction programs and decriminalization.

"I grew up in a religious, highly conservative, rural Alberta setting. I was basically raised on tough-on crime narratives - and I'm here to tell you straight up - we need this," he says. "I promote very liberal ideas and viewpoints on this topic because it's important from a human perspective. We have to start seriously considering alternative measures to fix the underlying problems rather than to criminalize the symptoms. There's such a human cost to what we're doing now."

"We're at step one or two of a hundred, and we need to start moving along on this road, as uncomfortable as it will be, if we're going to address some of these issues."