‘Corrections officers have no place counting out pills,” said Corrections Canada spokesperson Dennis Finlay from Vancouver.
But at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Prescriptions arrive at the jail in blister packs.
They are filed under the respective prisoners’ names.
Nurses set up charts detailing who gets what medication.
But the nurses don’t pre-package the pills, said jail superintendent Phil Perrin on Thursday.
Instead, when there are no nurses on duty, inmates walk up to corrections officers to ask for their meds.
The guards look at the inmates’ charts, confirms their identity and dole out the appropriate pills, said Perrin.
“It’s in their job description to pass out medication.”
New Democrat Justice critic Steve Cardiff isn’t so sure.
“There are nursing assistants who don’t have it in their job description to administer meds,” said Cardiff on Friday.
“So what kind of training and qualification do the guards have to make this part of their job description?”
Corrections officers at the jail don’t even need to have CPR training.
“We’ve had a course running the last few months and there’s been quite a few individuals who’ve been getting certification for First Aid,” said Perrin.
“We’re attempting to get every corrections officer trained.”
Corrections officers are dishing out some pretty heavy meds, said Cardiff, citing narcotics and other mood-altering drugs.
Without proper training, Cardiff questions whether guards are prepared for the possible reactions inmates may have to these strong drugs.
“What happens if an emergency arises out of an inmate getting their meds?” he said.
“What if an inmate gets the wrong meds?
“Who is responsible?
“And how long will it take for help to arrive? Because there’s nobody there.”
Cardiff toured the jail on September 27th.
During the visit, he learned there hadn’t been a nurse on duty there for several days.
“I was under the impression they were working on it and dealing with it,” he said.
But the situation still hasn’t improved.
Certain things need to be dealt with on a priority basis, said Cardiff.
“They need to get a nurse from somewhere.
“And the Justice minister (Marian Horne) hasn’t given me any comfort that she’s dealing with the issue.”
Because of the nursing shortage, the jail’s weekly doctor’s visit was cancelled two weeks in a row.
Perrin couldn’t confirm if a doctor had visited the jail this week.
There’s also no dentist on contract.
“(The medical staffing shortage) makes it more challenging for everyone to meet the needs of the inmates,” said Perrin.
“Everyone has to work harder.”
The jail has two auxiliary nurses who are on three days a week.
It’s triage, said Perrin.
“There’s a conscious effort that the ones in the most need get the services.”
In the past week, the jail did manage to get a dentist to see some of the inmates in desperate need of care, said Perrin.
“But it was an interim measure — not a permanent solution.”
The staff shortage isn’t unique to the jail, said Perrin.
“In hospital waiting rooms across Canada, you will sit for hours — so it’s no different.”
The health of the inmates is not compromised, he said.
“We can always have officers take inmates to the hospital.
“But we prefer to have our health care staff on site because it makes it simpler to deal with things.
“And it’s more cost effective to have our nursing staff deal with the basic concerns right here, rather than having to take them outside.”
Perrin, who’s worked in federal prisons and has some Outside connections, is searching nation-wide for nursing staff.
“You have to be creative,” he said.
The jail needs two full-time nurses and two auxiliaries.
Human Resources does the hiring, said Perrin.
“But it takes time.”
Up against a national shortage, it’s hard enough to find nurses, let alone nurses who want to work in a jail.
Before even doing a job interview, Perrin has applicants take a tour, “to see if they are comfortable in a setting that involves heavy locking doors.”
Over a year ago, the jail experienced a similar staffing crunch, said Perrin, who is confident the issues will get resolved eventually.
In the interim, corrections officers will continue to dole out meds to inmates.
“This isn’t a hospital,” said Perrin.
“It’s a prison, and the inmates are taking the same meds they would be at home.”