Canada’s official opposition party is demanding Justin Trudeau’s government pause its vaccination program for federal prisons, even though it may be against the law, according to advocates. When asked, the Conservative Party has refused to explain its position.
After news broke that the federal government would be reserving 1,200 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for federal inmates earlier this week, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole tweeted that “not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker.”
The statement, which has turned the vaccine rollout into a partisan issue, was slammed by prisoner advocates, calling it reprehensible and dismaying.
The Conservative Party doubled down in a statement from the party’s public safety critic, sent to journalists on Wednesday.
“It’s outrageous that incarcerated criminals will receive vaccines before vulnerable seniors in long-term care homes, front-line health care workers, and first responders,” Tory critic Shannon Stubbs said in the press release. It goes on to allege that “there is still no plan for front-line prison staff and correctional officers to receive vaccines” and prisons ought to be de-prioritized because “government data from this past year shows that prison outbreaks have been isolated.”
The COVID-19 outbreak in Canada’s prisons has been catastrophic. As of Wednesday, there have been some 1,200 cases in federal institutions, with nearly 1 in 10 inmates testing positive for the virus. Prisons are struggling to get several ongoing outbreaks under control. Dozens of corrections officers and staff have tested positive for the virus, although Correctional Services Canada does not report those numbers. Three inmates have died.
Most people in Canada, including employees at the prisons, are covered under provincial vaccination programs. As of Thursday, nearly 550,000 vaccine doses have been distributed among the provinces—enough to fully vaccinate every resident of a long-term care home, and still have enough doses to vaccinate more than 110,000 others.
The federal government has set aside just 3,700 doses for populations who rely on the federal government for health, such as members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Federal inmates will get 1,200 of those doses—enough for 600 people, given two shots are needed for the currently approved vaccines.
When VICE World News reached out to Stubbs’ office to request an interview on the statement, which contains several inaccuracies, her office insisted that the member of parliament is “completely booked up tomorrow.” When asked if the MP would be available in the near future, her office insisted “she’s not available.”
Richard Martel, the party’s deputy critic for public safety, did not respond to an interview request.
The Tories’ statement “dismayed” Tom Engel, president of the Canadian Prison Law Association. In a letter to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly, he urged Ottawa to ignore O’Toole and prioritize vaccinations inside federal prisons.
Much like in the general public, particularly at-risk prisons have been harder hit. Stony Mountain Institution and Saskatchewan Penitentiary, which are both 65 percent Indigenous, have seen hundreds of cases in recent weeks. Some institutions have seen shortages of hot water. The rate of COVID-19 in female prisons is 77 times higher than in the general public.
“Mr. O’Toole, who is a lawyer, is advancing a position that is against the law,” Engel alleged.
Under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the federal government has the explicit responsibility for all essential health care and that “offenders retain the rights of all members of society except those that are, as a consequence of the sentence, lawfully and necessarily removed or restricted.”
Engel points out that, without a vaccination campaign, the government’s “ability to carry out sentences safely and humanely is questionable.” The federal government has been blasted for not decarcerating older inmates who may be particularly at risk of complication or death from the virus, and for using solitary confinement to house sick inmates.
The extent of the crisis in those prisons didn’t phase prominent Conservative boosters in the Toronto Sun, who insisted that serial killers “are likely to get a vaccine before many nursing home residents,” nor third-party advertiser Ontario Proud, which published three different memes recently riling up its supporters to oppose the vaccination plan.
Senator Kim Pate, a longtime advocate for the rights of prisoners, told VICE World News that “the fact that any of us (non-epidemiologists) would be weighing in or inciting controversy about something that is fundamentally a health issue is reprehensible.”
Canada’s plan for the vaccine rollout is to start with seniors 80 years of age, and seniors in congregate living situations. Nearly 7 percent of Canada’s federal prisoners are 65 years of age or older. And contrary to the suggestion that older inmates are serial killers, only about half of those elderly inmates are serving life sentences—the average length of sentence for the other half is just seven years.
Many of the hardest-hit prisons are in predominantly rural areas, and are particularly risky as the second wave worsens.
“The health and safety of prisoners and the general public are intertwined,” Engel wrote. “Outbreaks in prison can strain the already overburdened health care system. They can also put correctional staff, health care workers, and others who work with prisoners at a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19, which then exposes their families and the community at large to COVID-19.”
Both Engel and Pate cautioned that the government needs to keep setting aside doses for federal inmates as the rollout of the vaccine continues.
“We call on the government to prioritize vaccinating all prisoners, not just the most vulnerable,” Engel said.
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