The first 40 federal inmates to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus in Canada were given their inoculations inside facilities without any active cases, Global News has learned.
That’s despite a number of prisons seeing outbreaks that have led to conditions that advocates call inhumane, while others also wonder why correctional officers aren’t being prioritized.
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) began its vaccination rollout for prisons Friday, with four federal institutions set to administer a combined 1,200 doses of Moderna’s vaccine in the coming days — enough to eventually inoculate 600 inmates.
Only one of those facilities, the Drummond Institution in Drummondville, Que., has ever seen any COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, and all 19 cases have already recovered. Vaccine doses were also delivered this week to the Regional Treatment Centre in Millhaven, Ont.; the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia; and the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Sask., none of which have seen a single infection to date.
The CSC said the facilities were chosen for the initial round of vaccinations because they’re home to inmates deemed priorities for receiving the vaccine — namely the elderly and medically vulnerable.
But that doesn’t sit well with Sherri Maier, a prisoner advocate who has a loved one serving a life sentence at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. The prison is currently battling the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the country, with 72 active cases as of Thursday.
With no vaccine, inmates there are being confined to their cells 23-and-a-half hours per day.
“Some guys are choosing to ‘bird bath,’ as they call it, in their cells, in their sink as opposed to showering so they can call their family,” she told Global News. “It’s inhumane.”
Prisons in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario are also currently seeing outbreaks, which also broke out in facilities in those provinces and others earlier in the pandemic. To date, three inmates have died and nearly 1,200 have been infected.
The CSC said vaccines will be distributed to other facilities “soon,” but could not say exactly when those deliveries would be made.
Maier and other advocates have pointed out that inmates are particularly vulnerable to a fast-spreading virus like COVID-19, and have spent months calling for them to be prioritized for the vaccine — regardless of age or condition.
“They’re still people, they still have rights and they still deserve to be protected in there,” Maier said. “Because they’re in such a confined space, they’re more vulnerable than most people.”
Should prisoners be prioritized?
The CSC and other government officials have defended the prison vaccination program, saying they are following the advice laid out by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization that says the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions should be prioritized.
“When someone becomes seriously ill in our federal institutions, they don’t receive treatment within the institution,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair explained at a press conference Wednesday. “They take up an ICU bed in a hospital in the local community.
“Therefore, it’s very important that we deal with those individuals at greatest risk of getting COVID and at greatest risk of having serious health consequences as a result.”
He noted the advisory committee has identified congregate living locations as high-risk areas for the coronavirus, which would include prisons as well as long-term care homes.
But Conservative politicians have been vocal in their opposition to inmates being prioritized. Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole wrote on Twitter Tuesday: “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Wednesday said he “couldn’t believe it” when he heard about the program, and urged the federal government to “stop it.”
“Let’s not give the most dangerous criminals in our country the vaccine before we give it to give it to our long term care patients, the most vulnerable and other elderly people,” he told reporters.
Blair criticized O’Toole’s and Ford’s comments, saying “frankly, the language of resentment and fear really has no place in this discussion.”
Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs told Global News Friday that her party was only concerned that vulnerable populations like long-term care residents and health-care workers might miss out on doses if inmates are further prioritized.
“In the reality of limited supply, of scarce supply, what we are saying is that those people should be put ahead of incarcerated inmates,” she said.
Over 261,000 Canadians have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to the COVID-19 Tracker Canada, which takes its data from government sources. The site says that number represents just under half of the 545,000 doses delivered to date.
What about correctional officers?
Stubbs added that if inmates are to continue getting vaccinated, “at the very least” the program should also put correctional officers and employees at the front of the line as well.
But the CSC said it will be the provinces who will be in charge of determining how those employees are prioritized, “as with all health care.”
“We have been working closely with Provinces to identify our health care and frontline workers for prioritization and some health care staff have already been vaccinated,” a spokesperson said.
Jeff Wilkins, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said that doesn’t make sense.
“We don’t want to rely on what the different provinces are doing,” he said. “We’re federal government employees, and the federal government should be looking after us.
“It’s something our members are begging for right now.”
The union has in the past complained about miscommunication from the CSC and a slow rollout of personal protective equipment to its members back in the spring, when the virus made its way into several federal and provincial prisons. The CSC has denied the union’s allegations.
Now that a vaccine has arrived, Wilkins says his members are once again being left behind.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me (that) our members are walking into this disease every day and they’re not being provided protection for it,” he said.
“The quicker we can get everybody vaccinated in institutions, inmates included, the better off we’ll be.”
Blair said Wednesday he understands the union’s concerns and said correctional officers will be prioritized, but added those with “acute” needs will still be front of the line — including inmates.
“We have a duty of care for those who are in our custody to ensure that they are treated fairly and that they are kept safe,” he said. “And I think that’s also very much in the interest of those correction workers who are in those institutions.”