Send to

Choose Destination
Int J Drug Policy. 2019 Sep;71:133-138. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.05.018. Epub 2019 Jul 23.

Fentanyl behind bars: The implications of synthetic opiates for prisoners and correctional officers.

Author information

Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Canada. Electronic address:
Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Canada. Electronic address:



Fentanyl and derivatives are lethal components of North America's opioid crisis. Prisons often house a disproportionate number of illicit opiate users. To date, no on-the-ground empirical research exists on how opioids are altering the health and risk profile of prisons. The objectives of this study were to examine (1) how fentanyl and its analogues have shaped the prison experience for prisoners; and (2) how these opioids have altered the occupation of correctional officers (CO's).


We conducted semi-structured interviews with 587 adult prisoners and 131 COs across four provincial prisons in Western Canada. Prisoners were recruited on their housing units and randomly selected. COs were recruited through non-probability, theoretical sampling. We employed a generalized prompt guide and asked a range of questions pertaining to how the presence of fentanyl and its analogues have changed the prison experience for prisoners and have impacted the work routine of COs. Interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed verbatim, thematically coded and analyzed using Nvivo 11.


For prisoners, we identified four main results: (1) the presence of fentanyl leads to an increased number of overdoses; (2) prisons are nonetheless perceived as a comparatively safe place to use drugs; (3) fentanyl is often mixed into other drugs, making it hard for drug users to avoid fentanyl; and (4) prisoners fear fentanyl is being weaponized. For officers, we identified: (1) increased fears about inadvertent personal exposure or widespread institutional opioid contamination; (2) fear of targeted poisonings; (3) changing attitudes towards opioid-using prisoners; and (4) a declining commitment to correctional careers.


The presence of fentanyl in prisons has significantly influenced how prisoners experience prison and relate to each other and how COs perceive their job. COs now identify fentanyl as the greatest risk to their safety in prisons.


Correctional officers; Fentanyl; Opioids; Overdose; Prison; Prisoners; Qualitative study

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Elsevier Science
Loading ...
Support Center