The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has begun its vaccination of high-risk federal inmates as of Friday, January 8, under the recommendation of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI). One thousand two hundred COVID-19 vaccines will be distributed in federal prisons across the country, with a desired 600 inmates eventually receiving vaccines. The first recipients in this vaccination plan are said to be ‘high-risk’, either being elderly or vulnerable due to a pre-existing health condition.
Under the Government of Canada’s Guidance on the Prioritization of initial doses of COVID-19 vaccine(s), the vaccination of those in correctional facilities falls under the second stage of vaccine rollouts. In congregate spaces, such as federal prisons, social distancing is hard to practice due to the confined nature of the inmates and workers.
“The CSC has an obligation to provide essential health care to federal inmates under the Correctional and Conditional Release Act,” explains Kyle Lawlor, senior communications advisor for CSC. He includes that this protection extends to vaccinating the inmate population.
“We have been working closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and have begun receiving doses of the Moderna vaccine, which was recently approved by Health Canada. At this time, as per the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) guidelines, CSC will be vaccinating approximately 600 older offenders prioritized by age and underlying medical conditions,” says Lawlor.
“Their objective is to save the greatest number of lives,” says Associate Professor of Sociology Alice Propper. “Prisoners live in conditions that make them vulnerable. Our federal, provincial, and municipal governments have a responsibility to provide medical care (both prevention and treatment) to all the men and women who live and work in spaces under their jurisdiction.”
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise nationally — over 1,200 cases have been confirmed in federal prisons across Canada — Propper reflects on the conditions that hinder inmates from being able to accurately protect themselves against the virus.
“Staff and inmates who are coming and going can infect people both in and out of prison. The prisoners spend 24 hours in spaces where it’s difficult to practice physical distancing, handwashing, and other prevention strategies.”
Lawlor assures, however, that COVID-19 protection is being practised within federal prisons, stating: “We are working in lockstep with our staff, public health partners, local hospitals, and unions, to adapt our approach and take additional measures as needed.”
Justin Piché, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and director of the Carceral Studies Research Collective, stresses the need for this vaccine rollout, stating that the “COVID-19 crisis is accelerating behind bars.”
“Prisoners are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than the general population. If governments are unwilling to limit prisoner exposure to the violence of incarceration and COVID-19 transmission by releasing as many of them as is safely possible now, they need to ensure prisoners and prison staff — like residents and workers in other congregate settings where social distancing is difficult at best — have access to vaccination sooner than the general population.”
“After all,” he continues, “staff return home to their families and communities at the end of their shifts.”
While correctional workers are not included in this initial rollout, Lawlor assures that the health of both inmates and correctional employees will be prioritized, detailing that the CSC is aware of the threat of COVID-19 amongst staff working in confined areas.
“Our health care and other frontline staff work in settings that contain congregate living environments where there may be heightened transmission risk of COVID-19,” says Lawler. “They keep our operations going 24/7.
“Provinces will provide vaccines to our employees,” he continues, “based on the NACI prioritization. We have been working closely with Provinces to identify our health care and frontline workers for prioritization — some health care staff have already been vaccinated. This is evolving quickly and we will continue to work closely with Provinces on future vaccine rollouts for frontline workers.”
This CSC vaccine rollout has been met with backlash, namely amongst members of the Conservative Party of Canada, as a result of prioritizing vulnerable prisoners. On January 5, Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada tweeted that “not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line worker.”
This remark came just weeks after Ontario Premier Doug Ford protested the same vaccination rollout, arguing to “not give the most dangerous criminals in our country the vaccine before we give it to our long-term care patients, most vulnerable, and other elderly people.”
“Erin O’Toole and Doug Ford’s statements, especially in the face of a significant spike in COVID-19 cases behind bars,” continues Piché, “were ill-informed, irresponsible, and frankly dangerous. Protecting prisoners via vaccinations protects us all. If they have not figured that out yet, they should cede their leadership duties to others who will look at the evidence and do what is necessary to get us out of this crisis with the least damage possible,” he says.
“As we approach year two of this pandemic,” Piché continues, “the Provinces, territories, and federal government need to do what is necessary to contain COVID-19, not people to limit its impact behind and beyond prison walls.”
As Propper simply states: “The lives of people living and working in prisons matter.”