Guards at Whitehorse Correctional Centre have a new job.
With no fulltime nurses on staff, correctional officers have started issuing meds to inmates.
“One of the corrections officers, who used to work in the federal system told me it’s just insane that they are handing out drugs,” said one inmate who asked to remain anonymous.
“It’s not part of their job description, but they’re told to do it or they don’t have a job.”
The guards aren’t just handing out Aspirins, said the inmate.
“They are dishing out narcotics and other heavy drugs, including anti-depressants and Valium.”
Generally it’s licensed practical nurses or registered nurses who hand out the medication, said Yukon Registered Nurses Association executive director Patricia McGarr on Wednesday.
“They are the people who have got the education and the understanding about what medications do, because it’s not just a case of giving out medications — you’re assessing a person when you’re with them and seeing if it’s appropriate for them to be having that medication.
“And there are times when it’s not appropriate to give them that medication.”
Sometimes families who’ve been educated by nurses and told what to watch for can then give medication to their ill family member, said McGarr.
“But even then, that’s being closely watched by a home-care nurse — it’s being assessed on an ongoing basis,” she said.
“And that’s only one person.
“But what education do the guards have to be giving out medications to a large number of people?
“That is a concern.
“If there are no nurses there, they must be giving out stuff like (Valium and narcotics) and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
The jail is supposed to have a nurse on duty weekdays from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., said Justice spokesperson Chris Beacom.
And on weekends there should be a nurse on duty daily for four hours, he said.
The jail currently has only two casual nurses.
One quit about a month ago and took a job at Whitehorse General Hospital, said the inmate.
She is back covering shifts because the jail is short-staffed.
The other is recovering from a bout with cancer, he said.
Over the past few weeks, there have been periods of three days where no nurse visited the jail, according to a nursing schedule obtained from the department of Justice.
On a day when a nurse was supposed to be on duty, the News called the jail.
The nurse would not be in, said the receptionist.
The nursing shortage at the jail has forced the weekly doctors’ clinic to be cancelled for the past two weeks, said Beacom.
“I was under the impression there was a nurse there on a regular basis, but obviously there are some problems there right now with staffing,” said McGarr.
“I don’t think that is appropriate — I need to follow up with the jail.”
In the federal corrections system, nurses issue the meds, said corrections media relations spokesperson Dennis Finlay from Vancouver.
“Only nurses and trained medical professionals are trained to do that,” he said on Tuesday.
“Even Aspirin you have to get from a nurse.”
If there are no medical professionals around, corrections officers may hand out pills, added Finlay.
In these cases, the nurse prepares the package to be delivered to the inmate and the corrections officers just dish it out, he said.
“But corrections officers have no place counting pills.”
The jail and other places do have bubble packs that have been pre-packaged for certain types of medications that are handed out by guards, said McGarr.
“But even with those, there should be a nurse around on a regular basis just to ensure that the medicine is still appropriate.”
There should definitely be a nurse there every day, she said.
Nurses have to watch for possible reactions to other drugs an inmate may be taking, said McGarr.
“They might be looking for an alteration in a person’s mood or alertness and these are subtle and ongoing and should be monitored daily.”
“I’ve had a number of guards express concern about having to hand out the medicine,” said an inmate.
Meds are handed out at the jail four times a day, he said.
Guards usually dispensed the early-morning and late-night meds, while the day meds used to be issued by the nurse on duty.
Now, days go by with no nurses or doctors visiting the jail, and guards are getting worried about their new duty, said the inmate.
“I can appreciate the concern of the correctional facility staff that this is not something they are comfortable doing,” said Yukon’s medical health officer Bryce Larke.
“I’m not sure how often it happens, but medical errors do happen, we certainly know that.”
Guards could give out the wrong meds to the wrong inmates.
“And then who is liable?” asked the inmate.
At both Macaulay Lodge and Copper Ridge Place only registered nurse or licensed practical nurses can issue the meds, said Health spokesperson Pat Living.
“They are the only individuals who have it within their scope of practice,” she said.
Living was not sure what protocol the Justice department followed for the jail.
Justice officials did not return phone calls by press time.