There is no reason to delay vaccinating prisoners

There are compelling reasons to move forward quickly with a comprehensive jail vaccination program

Michael Spratt

Vaccinate them. Vaccinate them all.

Every inmate in provincial and federal custody should receive COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as possible. And yes, they should probably receive it before you do.

Sure, a rapid custodial vaccination program will generate the typical performative Conservative outrage. Earlier this month Conservative leader and Erin O’Toole tweeted, “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker.”

Forget that just days after being elected leader of the CPC O’Toole vowed to stand up for stand up for human rights. It turns out that might have been O’Toole’s first lie as leader.

People in jail have human rights too.

There are 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 have actively made choices to make things worse.

Last year, in a damning decision, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that 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 as long as 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 untreatable 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 has taken root in Canadian jails. As freelance investigative journalist Justin Ling has reported, the impact of COVID in federal institutions has been disastrous with nearly 1 in every 10 inmates testing positive for the virus. 

The situation has not been much better in provincial institutions. Last week, following multiple outbreaks during the first wave of infections, new outbreaks were at jails across Ontario with a record 130 active cases at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex.

In March, Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones vowed to "protect our frontline workers and our healthcare system from the burden an outbreak in our correctional system could cause." But experts are now saying that it now seems the Ford government has “given up” on inmates.

The government has a special obligation to ensure the health and wellbeing of people in jail. Incarcerated people are completely dependent on the government for health care. Not only can inmates not seek out medical care on their own, they have been hamstrung at protecting themselves from infections in the first place.

Behind bars there can be no “social distancing.” Most of Ontario’s jails are filled to more than 80 per cent above their planned capacity. The same is true across Canada.

Inmates not only live in filthy conditions, but they are also routinely denied access to the most basic COVID protective measures. There are few masks, PPE, and hand sanitizer in our jails.

So, people in jail are more likely to be infected, more likely to spread that infection, and because we disproportionally imprison vulnerable populations with pre-existing health issues, they are more likely to become very sick when infected.  

Most people in jail will eventually be released back into our communities. And people in provincial jail are usually only there for short periods of time. Unchecked infections in jail risk spreading infections once inmates are released back into the general population.

Basic humanity also compels action. Being sick in jail is not like being sick at home. There are no warm bowls of soup, clean sheets, or peace and quiet. Instead, inmates suffer in cold isolation.

At the best of times, there is not enough treatment for addictions and mental health or programs to help with job skills and conflict resolutions in jail. But, risk of infection has also resulted in the complete cancellation of many of the limited in-custody rehabilitative programs that do exist.

A poor COVID plan interferes with rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders and can make our communities more dangerous.

Basic humanity compels the rapid vaccination of inmates. Good public health policy demands jail vaccines. And community safety is depended on providing good quality health care.

Standing up for human rights means standing up for everyone’s human rights. Inmates are some of the most vulnerable Canadians — they should be move to the front of the vaccine line.

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