01/23/2017 17:58 EST | Updated 01/24/2018 00:12 EST

Alberta Liberals want public inquiry into drug deaths in provincial jails

EDMONTON — The Alberta Liberals want the government to call a public inquiry into all drug-related deaths of inmates in provincial jails since 2012.

Liberal Leader David Swann said there has been a spike in the number of drug-related police investigations at the Edmonton Remand Centre over the past year.

Swann said he suspects the same thing is happening at jails across the province due to the growing problem of dangerous opioids such as fentanyl.

"We have a very significant increase in deaths and near deaths in both remand and correctional institutions and it appears to be related to opioids," Swann said in an interview Monday.

The common thread in these cases is that inmates have died as a direct result of drugs being smuggled into jails, he said.

In a letter to the government, Swann said a fatality inquiry should look at how to better prevent drugs from getting into correctional facilities.

Swann, who is a physician and a former medical health officer, said the inquiry should also review the effectiveness of staff training and addiction treatment programs.

In his letter, Swann cites Edmonton Police Service statistics that show the number of investigations involving drugs at correctional facilities in the Capital Region jumped to 127 last year, compared to 65 in 2015.

The Edmonton Remand Centre is the largest in the province and can currently house up to 2,000 inmates awaiting trial or sentencing.

The Liberals have also asked Alberta's ombudsman to review drug-related near-deaths in the province's jails.

Swann said the health of both inmates and corrections staff are at risk from fentanyl, a powerful drug that has been linked to hundreds of overdose deaths in Canada.

Erez Raz, an occupational health and safety representative with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said he supports the call for an inquiry.

Raz, a former correctional officer, said drugs coming into jails is a growing problem and that drug detection training is not being taken seriously enough by the government.

Opioids such as fentanyl are harder to deal with, he said.

"Security measures need to be beefed up nowadays because of the fact that this is a very serious drug that has come around and there are stronger ones coming - they need to do something about it."

Don McDermid, chairman of Alberta's Fatality Review Board, said he had not received Swann's letter but will review it when he does.

Alberta's Justice Department said there have been two confirmed drug overdose deaths at correctional facilities in the province between 2013 and 2015. Statistics for last year were not available.

Katherine Thompson, a spokeswoman for the department, said the government has strategies in place to intercept drugs at all provincial correctional facilities.

"These strategies are used to locate and remove drugs and drug paraphernalia through the use of drug detection dogs, ionizers, random and targeted urinalysis, routine searches and sharing of intelligence among correctional staff and law enforcement partners," she said in an email.

A spokesman for Alberta's Ombudsman said the office can't deal with Swann's request under the rules it operates under, which include receiving complaints from people who are personally affected by an issue.

"To date our office has not received individual complaints that would cause us to consider launching such an investigation."

The ombudsman can also investigate if asked to by a cabinet minister or by a committee of the legislature.