Canada·CBC Investigates

Some prisoners not offered COVID-19 shots until months after general public, CBC analysis finds

More than 6,700 prisoners across Canada have tested positive for COVID-19 — a rate much higher than the general population. Yet a CBC News analysis has found that in some facilities, prisoners waited until May for their chance at a first vaccination.

Despite housing an at-risk population, some Ontario and N.S. jails didn't offer prisoners vaccines until May

A tall chain-link fence, barbed wire and a surveillance camera are seen outside a jail.
Fencing is shown outside the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, a facility where a recent COVID-19 outbreak has infected at least 35 prisoners and five staff. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Deepan Budlakoti describes the rollout plan for the COVID-19 vaccine at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre as "a piece of paper put on the wall." 

It read: If you want a vaccine, put in for a vaccine. 

"That is it," said Budlakoti, who has been detained at the provincial jail for several years.

Budlakoti, 31, wanted the shot. But he had questions about his pre-existing medical conditions and risk factors ahead of the facility's first clinic for prisoners on May 18. 

"Someone outside would have access to the Internet; they'll be privy to all kinds of information," said Budlakoti, explaining his hesitation. 

He asked several times for a private consultation with a nurse or doctor, he said, but was never offered one. 

"A lot of us don't feel secure, not knowing what's actually happening. What is the vaccine? We don't have any information," he said. "We're not wanting to move forward on something that [we] have no adequate information on."

Shannon Sargent died in custody at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on July 20, 2016. A mandatory inquest is underway to determine her cause of death.
Deepan Budlakodi says he's been in a near constant state of lockdown at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre as a result of the recent COVID-19 outbreak. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Budlakoti decided to wait. 

Four days after its first clinic, the jail reported its third COVID outbreak — and the worst to date. Thirty-five prisoners and five employees had been infected as of Monday, according to Ottawa Public Health, who also said this outbreak involved variants of concern.

At another Ontario jail, the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, an outbreak was declared the day after its vaccination clinic was scheduled to start. At the end of May, the jail reported 146 active cases in a single day.

Based on his experience, Budlakoti believes Ontario has shown an "appalling" disregard for prisoners' well-being. 

"We are a year-and-a-half into this. At this stage, they easily could have put in place safe measures, like rapid testing and proper protective equipment," he said. "If anyone gets COVID-19, it's the sole result of [the province] not ensuring we're safe."

The City of Ottawa told CBC News that staff "have been engaged with the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre since mid-April," and that they have been vaccinating staff according to Ontario's three-phased distribution plan.

10 times more cases than 1st wave

As of June 9, more than 6,700 prisoners across Canada have tested positive for COVID-19 — a figure 10 times greater than what CBC News compiled a year ago, after the first wave of the pandemic swept across the country.

On average, 268 out of every 1,000 prisoners in provincial jails tested positive for COVID-19 this past year, according to a CBC analysis of cumulative cases reported between March 2020 and June 2021. In federal prisons, it's around 126 infected for every 1,000.

Both figures are far higher than the 37 cases per 1,000 Canadians found in the general population.

Yet despite infection rates being six times higher in jails than in the general population and a recommendation from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to vaccinate incarcerated individuals as early as Phase 2 — before healthy Canadians under 60 — CBC News found that in some facilities, prisoners waited until May for their chance at a first dose.

"I've been sitting in my office for much of the pandemic and yet I received my vaccination before anyone at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre did," said Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who runs a hotline for prisoners at the facility.

"We have rolled out vaccinations behind bars at a very, very late stage."

Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, says that the government should have expected vaccine hesitancy among people who are incarcerated. (Submitted by Justin Piché)

Nova Scotia correctional facilities were among the last in Canada to begin vaccinating on May 3. Manitoba, Alberta and Quebec all started in mid-April. 

In Ontario, the rollout officially launched in March, but some jails in the Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara regions didn't hold a first clinic until mid-May.

The fastest rollouts were in Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories: 11 jails held their clinics at the end of January and many have since administered second doses.

Federal prisons were among the first to vaccinate, immunizing in early January 600 prisoners considered at risk due to their age or to pre-existing medical conditions.

"It's known that living in these congregate-living settings is a risk factor," said epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite, with the University of Toronto's school of public health, noting that was reflected in Canada's long-term care facilities and homeless shelters early in the pandemic.

"It's very difficult to control the spread of a communicable disease in a setting where there's overcrowding, where ventilation may be inadequate, and you don't have the ability to physically distance yourself."

Less than half of Ontario prisoners vaccinated 

The high turnover in jails, where most are detained for less than a month, makes it difficult to pin down an exact percentage of vaccinated prisoners.

Currently, Quebec is the only department sharing daily updates on the number of prisoners vaccinated in provincial jails. 

According to CBC's analysis, more than 70 per cent of prisoners are immunized in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Yukon and Prince Edward Island at this time.

Ontario, on the other hand, lags behind.

As of June 4, at least 3,035 individuals in the province's jails had received a first dose of a vaccine, out of a total of 6,827 prisoners registered that same week — roughly 44 per cent.

In a statement, Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General told CBC News the vaccination data it provided in early June is "a point-in-time estimation" and would not be a current account of how many provincial inmates are currently vaccinated.

Yet researchers like Piché argue that in the absence of daily figures, those estimations are the best available measure of immunization efforts.

"The vaccination data represents a snapshot in time — one that clearly shows that while vaccines were being made more widely available to the general population, incarcerated people, at higher risk of being infected with COVID-19, were being left behind in a number of provinces," he said.

WATCH | COVID-19 vaccination efforts slow to roll out in some jails

Some inmates waited until May for COVID-19 vaccine: CBC News analysis

2 years ago
Duration 2:03

'Only have their cellmate to ask'

Dr. Gary Bloch and Michael Amichand are part of a group of advocates and lawyers who have taken it upon themselves to organize one-on-one meetings with prisoners to address their vaccine concerns.

"We've had three waves of COVID and we are only now going into what I consider to be one of the highest-risk hotspots in Ontario — in the country even," said Bloch.

A man with glasses stands on a lawn infront of parked cars.
Dr. Gary Bloch is a family physician who volunteers to meet with inmates to answer questions about COVID-19 vaccines. He says he's happy to be able to meet with people who are incarcerated, but worries that the information he's providing them is coming 'too little, too late.' (CBC)

The group recently visited Toronto's East Detention Centre, a facility that can house up to 473 men, but where only 50 prisoners had been vaccinated as of June 4. 

The institution's vaccination rate is around 13 per cent, said Bloch, also a family physician with St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "That to me is a health-care emergency."

Many prisoners the group met had already caught COVID-19 and were desperate to get a shot, said Amichand, a former inmate who now volunteers with the John Howard Society of Toronto.

"They have good questions that you and I would have asked a year ago: Will this affect our DNA? Our fertility? But we had our doctors to ask. We had our families and friends. These guys only have their cellmate to ask or whoever runs their range."

In many cell blocks, wild rumours and negative talk about the vaccine — and those who choose to get it — have been circulating for months, Amichand said. "There is talk that you're weak if you're getting the vaccine, or they are testing this stuff on us," he explained. 

After the group's visit, however, Amichand said every prisoner in one range signed up for a shot.

Michael Amichand is a former inmate and volunteer with the John Howard Society of Toronto. He's been working with those incarcerated to provide them with as much vaccine information as possible. (CBC)

COVID vaccines have generally come with a lot of questions, said Tuite, noting that the medical community knows enough about hesitancy and how critical it is to anticipate and answer those questions.

Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General told CBC News that "health-care staff continue to work with inmates one-on-one in each unit to discuss the benefits of vaccination, and address concerns, ahead of any opportunities to receive the vaccine either at the facility or in the community after release."

Glaring data gaps concerning: researchers

The researchers who reviewed CBC's data analysis each noted the gaps it contained: only Prince Edward Island knew exactly how many jail employees were vaccinated, while six provinces and territories said they couldn't break down vaccination numbers by jail, making it impossible to pinpoint facilities with high hesitancy rates.

Many provinces told CBC News that jail staff are left to be vaccinated as members of the general public, and therefore they do not keep data on staff vaccination rates.

Adelina Iftene, an expert in prison law and a law professor at Dalhousie University, called the lack of transparency around vaccinations in jails a "significant concern."

 "This is not a matter that impacts just prisoners. This is a matter of public health," she said. "Ultimately, it is a lack of willingness and a lack of consideration for the well-being of those in prison."

LISTEN | Senior data journalist Valérie Ouellet talks to The Current about this investigation

METHODOLOGY: How did CBC News track vaccination in jails?

Between May 10 and June 9, CBC News asked every correctional department for the following, broken down by jail: Number of prisoners incarcerated (snapshot for one day); cumulative number of confirmed COVID cases; cumulative number of COVID-related deaths; and total number of vaccinated individuals (first dose). CBC News calculated infection rates based on cumulative cases reported and vaccination rates based on the total number of prisoners who had received one dose of the vaccine. Figures only represent adult prisoners. Because the vast majority of prisons and jails have only offered a first dose, we compared carceral figures with the total percentage of Canadians who had received at least one dose during the week of May 31, 2021.

Caveats and data gaps: Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General initially refused to provide a breakdown of vaccinated inmates per facility as "public health units [are] the leads on this [vaccination rollout]" and told CBC News it should "follow up with public health units on the number of vaccines administered to provincial inmates." CBC News did ask the 20 regional health units with a correctional facility in their jurisdiction when they held vaccination clinics and how many prisoners were vaccinated. Fifteen provided detailed figures and five health regions refused to disclose, saying they did not compile those statistics or referring CBC back to the Ministry of the Solicitor General. The missing figures were eventually provided by the government. The total of 3,035 vaccinated prisoners used in this story reflect our best efforts to compile accurate data at this time. 

Nova Scotia's Justice Department refused to provide CBC News with any statistics related to vaccination, stating that "vaccination is personal health information. That is not something the department would have or share." 

The New Brunswick Department of Health could not provide CBC News with an exact number of vaccinated inmates, stating that "vaccination was offered for about 460 offenders and to staff. A total of 389 doses were administered during these clinics." 

The Nunavut government could only provide CBC News with a cumulative number of doses administered, which included first and second doses in one total and could not be compared with other provinces. 

Research and data analysis: Valérie Ouellet, senior data journalist, CBC News