Ontario prison inmate vaccination program a failure

Outbreaks, little access to information and low vaccination rates just part of the problem

Michael Spratt

As Canada begins to reopen and we all feel an increasing sense of hope that business, schools, and our communities can return to some resemblance of normalcy — the pandemic is still raging in our prisons.

Last week, dozens of inmates and as many as five staff members at Ottawa’s notorious detention centre and more than 130 prisoners at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario, tested positive for COVID-19.

These most recent outbreaks follow a negligently slow rollout of vaccines for Ontario’s jail population.  

The most recent outbreak was declared at the Lindsay jail on the same day an inmate vaccination clinic was scheduled. As reported by the Toronto Star’s Alyshah Hasham, Lindsay and Ottawa were among the last jails to start vaccinating inmates. 

But it didn’t have to be this way.

There were obvious and compelling humanitarian and public health reasons to move forward quickly with a comprehensive jail vaccination program. The sad and undeniable truth is that Canadian jails are filthy, overcrowded, and populated by some of our communities’ most vulnerable people. In other words, jails are a perfect petri dish for the spread of disease.

Politicians have not only ignored the inhumanity that exists behind bars, but they have actively made choices to make things worse.

Last year, in a damning decision, the Ontario Superior Court ruled conditions at the Toronto South Detention Centre were “inhumane and fail to comport with basic standards of human decency.” Inmates were often confined to crowded small cells for seven days, without access to showers. Clothing and bedding were often stained with urine, feces or blood. And there were bedbug infestations and other unsanitary conditions that led to infections.

The court ruled that those horrendous conditions were a “deliberate policy choice to treat offenders in an inhumane fashion … rather than devote appropriate resources to the operation of the institution.”

So, it should come as no surprise that COVID-19 has taken root in our jails.

And the Ontario numbers lay bare the failure of both municipal and provincial governments. There have been 531,459 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ontario. That puts Ontario, with a total population of about 15.5 million, at an infection rate of about 3.5 per cent.

In Ontario, there are approximately 7,000 people currently in custody. At the beginning of the pandemic, that number dropped to below 6,000 from a pre-pandemic high of over 8,000 inmates. So far, 1,538 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 — a positivity rate of over 21 per cent.

Although I am no statistician and the percentage of impacted inmates is likely lower than 21 per cent due to turn-over in the prisoner population, there is no doubt that things are much worse behind bars.    

Making matters worse is an increased vaccine hesitancy in jail. CTV’s Colton Praill reported that Ottawa Public Health says 152 of the nearly 400 inmates are vaccinated, about 38 per cent and a far cry from the more than 60 per cent of Ontarians with their first dose.

This hesitancy was also entirely predictable. I have spoken to many inmates at the Ottawa Detention Centre who report a lack of public education. Keep in mind that the prisoners in Ontario’s jails are disproportionately marginalized backgrounds and suffer in horrible conditions that breed mistrust of jail officials.

These inmates cannot take time to research vaccines and closely examine the costs and benefits of getting the shot. They don’t have access to family doctors, community support networks or the internet. They do not have the luxury of reflection. And if they are hesitant, they can’t change their mind and book a shot.

Instead, a nurse shows up at their cell and asks them if they want the vaccine. No questions. No discussion. No time for reflection. Yes or No. Now.

These are the same inmates who have been denied health care and believe, with good reason, that the jail doesn’t care about them.

Forgive them if they don’t trust an unexpected needle from their jailers.

Some jails have let outside volunteers go behind bars to help with inmate education about vaccinations.

But not in Ottawa, where Ottawa Public Health’s mobile vaccination team only showed up at the jail in late May and blew off offers by the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project to assist with anticipated inmate vaccine hesitancy.

It has become clear that all levels of government have failed in their obligations to care for inmates. The Ontario provincial government has long seemed content with inhumane conditions. The current Ford government was slow to roll out vaccines. In Ottawa and other municipalities, our city officials did not take steps to ensure inmates understood the benefits of vaccinations.

There is no surprise here.

They were all warned.

The problem is, they just didn’t give a damn.

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