Vaccinating inmates protects us all. To say otherwise is just a cheap attempt to gain votes
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole ignores solid evidence on how COVID-19 spreads in and from prisons
This is an opinion column by Ian Gauthier, a former correctional officer and currently a student-at-law at Mines and Company Criminal Lawyers in Vancouver. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Erin O'Toole's recent stance on Twitter regarding the triaging of prisoners on the COVID-19 vaccine waiting list is highly disturbing. It's part of a troubling trend in politics where elected officials ignore solid evidence and policy advice, and instead manipulate our emotions in a cheap attempt to gain votes.
The online stance against prison vaccinations by O'Toole, leader of the Conservative Party and of the official federal Opposition, along with the medium in which he has spread it, is the kind of rhetoric that has led to the circus we're witnessing in the United States.
His tweet, framing disagreement with his ideological stance as an affront to front-line health-care workers, smacks of the anti-intellectualism and the divisive tactics used by President Donald Trump in the U.S.
Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker.<a href="https://t.co/4B22ELE2uf">https://t.co/4B22ELE2uf</a>—@erinotoole
Prison vaccinations are good policy based on advice from health professionals and prisoners' rights and justice advocates. O'Toole may not agree, but instead of critiquing the federal government's vaccination plan, the Leader of the Opposition is taking advantage of people's misconceptions of the correctional system in an attempt to stoke animosity.
Correctional facilities are super-spreader hotspots
We are talking about a very small number of vaccines. There aren't that many prisoners in Canada.
The proposed policy is to inoculate 600 "older, medically vulnerable" inmates — a minuscule proportion of the total population in prisons. According to Statistics Canada, pre-COVID there were roughly 38,000 provincial and federal inmates in Canada. Of those people, about half are incarcerated for one month or less in provincial institutions.
On average per province/territory, the number of people serving more than a month in prison is equivalent to or smaller than some high schools. For example, my high school in Edmonton had 1,900 students.
By nature, prisons are crowded, confined areas with poor ventilation. Correctional facilities can quickly become super-spreader hotspots if they contain someone who, for any number of reasons, struggles to maintain personal and public hygiene practices or refuses to follow the rules. In such tight quarters, the impact of improper hygiene or bucking COVID-related rules may be easily amplified. There have been outbreaks in correctional facilities all over the country, and correctional centres have drastically adjusted their policies and procedures in recognition of the inherent danger of catching the coronavirus.
It's such a serious concern that judges now weigh the danger of the virus as part of their analysis when determining whether to impose custody on remand and sentencing offenders, in recognition that correctional centres are a high-transmission environment during a pandemic.
Moreover, contrary to what some may think, correctional centres are not closed systems.
Refusing to vaccinate criminals doesn't just put prisoners at risk. O'Toole's comments dismiss the dangers faced by front-line staff at prisons. Correctional officers, police officers, sheriffs, probation officers, caseworkers, lawyers, social workers, program facilitators, admin staff, kitchen staff, cleaners, nurses, and other medical professionals all go in and out of prisons daily. All of these people then go home to their families at night. Their families go to work, go to school, go to the store.
Furthermore, people are continually admitted, and prisoners get out of jail and go back to their communities. Cases of people who contract COVID in jail and then return home can have catastrophic effects on an already strained health care system. This is particularly true for remote, medically under-resourced communities where many Indigenous people, a group that is over-represented in the correctional system, are from.
In this way, vaccinating prisoners reduces the risk of community spread, since preventing someone from leaving a correctional centre with COVID-19 can keep community transmission down.
'Criminals' is a loaded word
In his tweet, O'Toole uses the word "criminal" rather carelessly. There is a certain image conjured when the word is used. Yes, dangerous offenders exist, but correctional centres are widely diverse places.
There are people with severe mental health issues, often without families, who run afoul of the law because they have no place to live and no ability to properly look after themselves, and there are no medical treatment facilities available.
There are people who screw up behind the wheel of a car and face jail time; there are many ways to end up in jail for driving that do not involve drinking.
Furthermore, not everyone incarcerated is a criminal. You've probably heard the names David Milgaard, Donald Marshall Jr., and Steven Truscott. They are just some of the people who were wrongly convicted.
And a lot of people incarcerated are remanded, meaning innocent until proven guilty. I was the caseworker for an inmate who spent more than two years remanded in jail for killing his father to protect his mother in a severe domestic violence situation. His actions were found necessary and justified at trial. Despite a court of law affirming that he was in fact not a "criminal," he spent his formative teenage years incarcerated.
Also, not all criminals are in jail. In fact, the vast majority of Canadians convicted of crimes are serving their sentences in the community.
My firm has defended some health-care workers who were eligible for prison sentences, but who were able to enter into alternative measures programs to avoid having a criminal record, or entered into community-based sentences precisely because they are health-care workers. These people have committed criminal acts, yet are the very people O'Toole says he is supporting by denying criminals vaccinations.
To bring it back to my main issue: Allocating scarce resources is a dicey game, and hard choices need to be made. The risk mitigated by diverting a small amount of the available vaccines to a vulnerable incarcerated population makes good policy sense, despite offending our immediate sensibilities.
WATCH: Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on vaccinations for inmates:
However, there's a lot to critique and question about the proposed federal vaccination policy without stooping to lazy Trump-esque tactics. For example, why isn't O'Toole questioning the decision to vaccinate only federal inmates? Why only 600 inmates? How is the government determining which 600 get the vaccine? Why only inmates and not staff?
O'Toole should treat his role as leader of the Opposition, as well as leader of a party that may form the next government, with the respect the position demands. Critique the federal government's vaccination policy where it deserves to be scrutinized – in the details. And work on uniting us through understanding instead of through anger.
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