The federal Conservatives are up in arms over a recent announcement by the Correctional Service of Canada that inmates would start receiving vaccines against COVID-19 as of Jan. 8.
In a Facebook post, Lakeland MP Shannon Stubbs said, “not one incarcerated criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker,” and that the government data shows “prison outbreaks have been isolated.”
At first blush, I can see why the Conservatives are upset. But the devil is in the details, and the critical detail here is that it’s not all inmates who are being vaccinated immediately. CSC is beginning immunizations of “older, medically vulnerable, federal inmates.”
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) guidelines for priority vaccination include those at high risk for severe illness and death, those most likely to transmit to those at high-risk and workers essential to COVID-19 response, essential services for the functioning of society, and those in living or working conditions with elevated risk for infection or disproportionate consequences, including Indigenous communities.”
According to Statistics Canada, an average of 14,071 people are in federal custody on any given day.
According to information from the John Howard Society, which cites a 2018/2019 report of the Parole Board of Canada, only three per cent of custodial sentences are served in a federal penitentiary.
So how many of those 14,000 inmates are older and medically vulnerable? According to CSC, they expect to give 600 people the vaccine across all their facilities in Canada.
But why not immunize the guards first? According to the CSC, they have roughly 18,000 employees, of whom 6,149 are correctional officers and they are “working closely with the provinces and territories to facilitate access to the COVID-19 vaccine for staff in accordance with the priority groups identified by NACI.”
Which is the other key detail. The CSC is not the entity responsible for delivering healthcare to the guards. They are responsible for providing healthcare to inmates.
Grandma needs her vaccine too, and she should absolutely get it. But you don’t have to take a guard or a police officer away from the prison to keep an eye on her if she gets sick and needs to be hospitalized. Grandma’s also not likely to hurt anyone while she’s being taken care of. You don’t get to a federal jail in Canada unless you’ve been sentenced to at least two years imprisonment. Are we really convinced the same can be said of Old Joe in Cell Block D*, even if he is medically vulnerable?
“Well Old Joe did the crime, he shouldn’t get to jump the line.”
It’s a tricky thing this justice system. Joe has either plead guilty to or been convicted of a crime and it is absolutely proper for him to be denied his freedom for a time as punishment for him and to deter his buddy Frank from doing the same thing.
But while he’s in custody, our government is responsible for his needs. One of those needs is access to health care, and in the case of a pandemic virus which is proven to spread more quickly in group living situations like prisons, that means access to a vaccine.
It’s not good enough to say prison outbreaks have been isolated and so we shouldn’t bother immunizing the inmates most likely to become seriously ill. The fact is, there are currently active cases in at least five federal institutions and outbreaks are likely to continue happening as long as there is community spread in the places where they are located.
The bigger question is how long until the province steps up and follows suit?
*Old Joe in Cell Block D was invented for this column. He and his buddy Frank are purely fictional, and Grandma and her knitting needles probably pose more of a risk than I think.