At least 600 federal inmates will receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting Friday, raising questions about whether Canadians who’ve committed crimes should be protected from the virus before health-care workers, prison staff and the general population.
Correctional Service Canada will distribute doses to 600 prisons across the country and target elderly inmates who are at an “acute” risk of developing severe symptoms if they contract the virus, said Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair at a news conference Wednesday.
“The elderly and those living with underlying health conditions must be a priority for the vaccine,” he said. “And that’s why we are making a small number of those vaccines available to those individuals … We have a duty of care for those who are in our custody to ensure they’re treated fairly and kept safe.”
Canada has received more than 423,000 Pfizer and Moderna vaccine doses. So far, 163,000 people have been vaccinated, or 0.4 per cent of the population.
The prison pilot program was developed based on advice from Health Canada and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization that identified priority groups for vaccination efforts, including people living in close quarters, like long-term care homes or prisons, Blair said.
The plan was quickly criticized by conservative politicians and the union representing 7,400 correctional officers across Canada.
“It’s outrageous that incarcerated criminals will receive vaccines before vulnerable seniors in long-term care homes, front-line health-care workers, first responders and correctional officers,” said a joint statement by Shannon Stubbs, Conservative shadow minister for public safety and emergency preparedness, and Richard Martel, Quebec’s political lieutenant.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he was in disbelief when he first heard of the plan.
“You’re giving the most dangerous criminals in the entire country (vaccines). How do you square this?” Ford said at a news conference Wednesday, adding that the federal government should make sure every long-term care worker and resident is vaccinated before inmates.
Ontario has so far received more than 60,000 vaccine doses and has distributed about 10,300, but Ford said the province is “scraping every vaccine we can get.”
“Whoever the minister is in charge of (the prison vaccines) has dropped the ball majorly. I encourage the Prime Minister, stop it. It is not good, not good at all.”
Ford’s Solicitor General Sylvia Jones told reporters that Ontario will give vaccines to correctional officers and health-care workers working within the province’s jails before its inmates. But first, the province is focusing on getting long-term care residents and workers vaccinated.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers is demanding its members be vaccinated as quickly as possible. The federal government, however, has not given the union any estimate of when that will happen, President Jim Wilkins told HuffPost Canada.
“Our concern is we think Correctional Service Canada really needs to prioritize where that vaccine goes,” he said. “I argue that our members are disproportionately affected by the virus.”
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, more than 225 federal correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19, and many more are working in prisons where there are outbreaks. Those sites need to be prioritized, Wilkins said.
Officers are also being encouraged by public health agencies to self-isolate from their family when they’re not on the job.
“And yet, we’re not being afforded the protections that we need,” Wilkins said.
More than 1,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and three have died. Insitutitions in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are currently dealing with outbreaks, according to federal data.
Kingston, Ont. Liberal MP Mark Gerresten defended his government’s program on Twitter. He urged critics, in particular Conservative party Leader Erin O’Toole, to let health professionals decide who should get vaccinated when.
Others stood up for inmates, who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and People of Colour and often among Canada’s most vulnerable.
CORRECTION - This story’s original headline stated that 1,200 inmates will receive doses of the vaccine. It has been corrected to reflect that the number is 600 inmates.