When her boyfriend Christopher Yetman tested positive for COVID-19 during one of the worst Canadian prison outbreaks, Krystle Lapointe was beside herself with worry.
A couple of inmates contracted COVID-19 mid-December, Lapointe said. A few days later, nearly every one of the 45 plus inmates on the medium security range tested positive for the virus.
Yetman, who is serving a three-year sentence, experienced fever, fatigue, a loss of smell and taste, sores in his mouth and then began coughing up bloody phlegm, Lapointe said. He asked repeatedly to see a doctor or nurse, but they never came.
“It was hard not to believe he wasn’t going to make it. He was so empty and hollow and had lost all hope,” Lapointe told HuffPost Canada.
The inmates continue to be on lockdown 23.5 hours a day because of the outbreak. Yetman calls when he’s able to, but communication remains sporadic and unpredictable.
“At that point you’re sitting there going, ‘are they even alive?’” Lapointe said. “This is probably the hardest thing I will ever go through in my life.”
Yetman is now recovering from COVID-19, but said being confined to a five by 13-foot cell is extremely difficult.
“It’s a little wear and tear on the mind,” said Yetman. Lapointe recorded a recent phone conversation for this story with his permission.
When the first inmates tested positive, Yetman said the guards didn’t immediately segregate them and the virus spread quickly in the close quarters.
The guards’ response was, “’we know what’s happening, you just have to roll with it and they blamed us for it spreading,” he said.
Correctional Service Canada does not know how the virus was first introduced into the prison, said spokesperson Kelly Dae Dash. Contract tracing and regular testing is underway.
Dae Dash said in order to ensure inmates physically distance, their movements “are kept to a minimum” and masks are mandatory.
“Given the close living environment, positive inmates and close contacts are medically isolating in their cells,” Dae Dash said. “During the isolation period, inmates have access to health-care staff as well as institutional staff.”
The federal government reported on Jan.10 that there were 33 active cases at the penitentiary, down from 69 on Thursday, three days earlier. One prisoner died due to complications related to COVID-19.
Some of the penitentiary’s most vulnerable inmates will receive their first doses of the Moderna vaccine as part of the national vaccine rollout.
Up to 600 federal inmates across Canada, who are older and with underlying health conditions, will receive the vaccine in the coming weeks based on public health advice by the national Advisory Committee on Immunization, said Dae Dash.
“CSC has an obligation to provide essential health care to inmates. To this effect, we will be vaccinating the inmate population,” she said, noting that when more doses are available, all inmates will be vaccinated.
Some corrections health-care staff have already been vaccinated, and more will be eligible soon.
Yetman questioned why inmates rather than correctional officers are receiving the vaccine first. The guards go out into the community where they have a higher chance of contracting the virus and bringing it back to the prison.
“Realistically, I would want us (the inmates) to get vaccinated first,” he said. “But there’s not a lot of guards here, maybe 10 to 15. That’s not a lot of doses. Divy it up and go about it that way.”
“This is not a crime decision, it’s a public health decision.”
The vaccine pilot met with backlash last week, despite that it allotted only 0.05 per cent of the 1.2 million doses Canada will receive by the end of January.
Critics, including Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, said no prisoners should receive the vaccine before seniors in long-term care homes, front-line workers, first responders and correctional workers.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stop the pilot before it begins.
“You’re giving the most dangerous criminals in the entire country (vaccines). How do you square this?” Ford said at a news conference Wednesday. “How do you put (inmates) ahead of long-term care patients?”
Watch: Meet the 1st Canadians to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Story continues below.
These divisive comments from politicians are irresponsible and inflammatory, said Dalhousie University law professor Adelina Iftene. The federal government has a legal responsibility not to expose incarcerated people to higher rates of infections.
Almost a year into the pandemic, prisons continue to experience outbreaks and higher infection rates than in the outside community, she said. Along with Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Stoney Mountain in Manitoba and Joyceville Institution in Ontario have active cases.
While vaccinating 600 inmates is not enough to stop outbreaks, Iftene says it’s a good start to protect the most vulnerable.
“This is not a crime decision, it’s a public health decision,” she told HuffPost.
Politicians weighing in “fuels reactions from the public (who are) already extremely anxious and understandably so about the pandemic and the vaccine, about their loved ones. It misses the point of why prisoners should be prioritized.”
Lapointe said she’s well acquainted with the general public’s views on prisoners, describing comments she’s recently read online as “disgusting.”
“At first I wanted to yell at everybody, but what was that going to help?” she said. “But then I got to the point of no one’s ever going to see things the same way (as me). They don’t have someone in here. To me, when Chris is in there, he’s not an inmate. He’s still human.
“To think of him as an inmate who deserves nothing because he did something bad… it’s easy for everybody else to say, but when you know him as a person, it’s not the same.”
Lapointe said she’ll let the government make the decisions about the vaccine roll out.