By Tom Spears, Ottawa Citizen

Ontario’s corrections ministry says it does not track the number of opioid overdoses in its jails, even though prisoners have died and staff are routinely treating inmates for overdoses.

That has observers of the jail system wondering how the province expects to combat a major health crisis and keep people safe without a full statistical picture of the drug overdose problem.

Last May, this newspaper sent a freedom-of-information request to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, asking how many overdoses there have been in provincial jails, and how many times staff have administered the antidote naloxone.

Five months later, the answer has arrived.

The number of overdoses and cases where naloxone is used are “not maintained in a central databank,” the ministry says in a letter.

As a result, counting up the totals would require “an extensive manual search within each inmate’s file in each provincial jail covering the specified time period.”

We also asked how many drugs seizures there were in jails during two six-month periods in 2017 and 2018. The ministry says it seized suspected drugs 206 times from May to October on 2017, and 111 times in the five months after that (with figures not available for the sixth month).

Even then, it cautions that jail staff can’t really say whether the seized materials are drugs, since this would require testing.

Ministry spokesman Brent Ross sent a statement Monday saying that “the ministry is developing a tracking system for naloxone use, which will act as an indicator of the number of overdoses taking place.” He said he can’t speculate when the tracking system will begin, “but work is ongoing.”