As the federal government prepares to start vaccinating 600 of the most vulnerable federal inmates across the country, a researcher is calling criticisms of that plan short-sighted.
Following news of the federal government's plan to start vaccinating inmates, several politicians, including Ontario premier Doug Ford and federal opposition leader Erin O'Toole, said prisoners should be get the vaccine only after front-line health-care workers have been vaccinated.
"It's impossible to stay safe when you're incarcerated," said Linda Mussell, a PhD candidate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has been studying the impact of COVID-19 on correctional facilities since the start of the outbreak in March 2020.
"You can't isolate like you can outside."
She noted that correctional facilities across Canada have experienced severe outbreaks, including the Joyceville Institution in Kingston which on Wednesday had 67 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates, according to Correctional Service Canada (CSC).
Mussell said the government's plan was based on advice from the country's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).
"This is a public health issue," she said. "People behind bars, they're members of our society too. They're humans and they're extremely vulnerable."
Immunize staff first, says union
The union representing federal correctional officers says it was not only caught off guard by the government's announcement, it's also demanding front-line workers at prisons be vaccinated before inmates.
"We have many members across this country working in very precarious institutions that have been identified as pandemic sites," said Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. "We're going to run into some serious issues."
Wilkins says that of his 7,500 members across the country, 225 have so far tested positive for COVID-19, and he's concerned more will contract the virus in the coming weeks and months unless they're offered the vaccine very soon.
"They're the priority," he said.
Staff immunizations done by provinces and territories
In a written statement, Correctional Service Canada said that under its Corrections and Conditional Release Act, it "has has an obligation to provide essential health care to federally incarcerated inmates."
The department said that CSC staff are vaccinated by their home province or territory, and that the department is working closely with health officials to vaccinate staff in accordance with the priority groups identified by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
Mussell said she still believes inmates should be immunized before correctional officers.
"I agree that staff need to be vaccinated too, but people who are confined are facing additional risks," she said.