Drugs in Canadian prisons: has enforcement worked?

This is the first in a three-part series highlighting the critical need to consider policy and program reform in Canadian federal prisons.

In recent years, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has stepped up efforts to keep drugs out of prisons. Nonetheless, the emphasis on in-prison drug detection and enforcement is linked to numerous problems.

For some people, a prison sentence is indeed a valuable opportunity to “get clean” from drugs. However, the idea that prison offers a safe and abstinent setting for everyone rests on flawed assumptions about reduced supply and demand for drugs in prison. In my research, I found that despite substantial funding and increased prison-based enforcement, the goal of “drug-free prisons” is still far out of reach in Canada.

In 2007, CSC launched a Transformation Agenda that includes as one of its five priority areas “eliminating drugs from prison.” The following year, the federal prison system received an investment of $120 million over five years to augment its anti-drug strategy. The funding was to enhance tools to detect, disrupt, and deter drug use inside prisons such as random urine testing, security intelligence officers, drug-detector dogs, and ion scanners. It’s a big, expensive toolkit – and yet there is no clear evidence that these tools have proven effective.

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different opinions about drug enforcement and its impact inside prisons. Some highly informed observers – such as former correctional officers and people who work for community-based agencies that provide support to prisoners – say that not only have enhanced enforcement efforts failed to keep drugs out of prison, they may in fact be making matters worse. Problems related to enforcement include people switching the substances they use (e.g., cannabis to opiates) to avoid detection, increased risk behaviours (e.g., needle hiding and sharing), heightened tensions and violence related to the drug trade, and fewer visitors.

The consequences can be immediate or extend well beyond the prison sentence. For instance, when prisoners who inject drugs share needles, they are at risk of getting HIV and hepatitis C. When relatives, friends, and volunteers feel stigmatised and distressed due to invasive security procedures or are denied access based on potentially inaccurate information, they visit less or not at all. This weakens relationships that are vital to successful reintegration upon release.

These problems tend to be reinterpreted or even dismissed by CSC. Instead, CSC points to the increases in drug seizures and fewer positive urine tests and refusals as indicators that enforcement is working. Visitors turning away at prison gates is offered as evidence that entrance procedures are effectively deterring people who are carrying drugs. In short, these issues remain contentious. But it’s important to emphasize that CSC – and other prison agencies, generally – tends to lay blame for drug-related problems on prisoners and visitors, without acknowledging the impact of their zero-tolerance policy and enforcement.

This narrow focus that overlooks competing information and perspectives makes it difficult to reform current policy and practices. A few years ago, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security brought together a variety of knowledgeable stakeholders and experts, including CSC officials, to investigate the “alarming problem” of drugs and alcohol in federal prisons. Witnesses voiced “very different positions on the policy and the measures taken by CSC,” with some testifying that the enforcement response has not eliminated drugs in prisons and plays a role in jeopardizing the health and safety of prisoners, prison staff, and communities. Despite this, the final report recommended continued investment in enforcement enhancements and upheld the “commitment to establish drug-free prisons.” In other words, it didn’t stray from the Transformation Agenda. Canadians should read such reports with a critical eye and ask what has actually been transformed.

CSC manages a large population within prison walls in communities across Canada. While we advocate for drug policy reform outside of prisons, we must not forget about policy and programs that affect the many federally sentenced men and women (including disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people) who use drugs. Well-designed and comprehensive evaluations of drug enforcement efforts inside our prisons are long, long overdue. And given the persistence of drug use in Canadian prisons, realistic assessment of appropriate harm reduction programs, such as safer drug use education and syringe distribution, should also be a priority.

About Tara Marie Watson

Tara Marie Watson received her PhD from the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto. She has longstanding interests in drug policy and correctional populations, and research experience related to public health programming for people who use drugs.