Hamilton public health vaccinating inmates but not jail guards is 'egregious,' union says

Hamilton public health confirmed a vaccination clinic for inmates was scheduled to begin Thursday and continue until Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Researcher says it's 'critical that staff be vaccinated' to stop the spread of COVID-19

The union representing corrections workers is calling on public health to ensure staff at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre get vaccinated for COVID-19, along with inmates. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The head of the union representing corrections workers in Ontario said he's "stunned" inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) will receive COVID-19 vaccinations this week, while shots for staff at the jail have not been confirmed.

Hamilton Public Health Services confirmed a vaccination clinic for inmates at the Barton Street jail was scheduled to begin Thursday and continue until Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Any leftover doses will be offered to staff, "however, it's important to note that there will likely be limited doses as staff are careful to manage vaccine in such a way to ensure residual doses are minimized," public health spokesperson James Berry said in an email.

Eligible corrections officers will be able book an appointment for a shot at one of the city's mass vaccination clinics, he added.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), issued a statement Thursday calling on Solicitor General Sylvia Jones to order public health officials to vaccinate corrections staff as soon as possible.

"The behaviour of Hamilton Public Health is egregious," he said in a media release.

"If public health officials in Hamilton can't get their act together, then the provincial government should take over and provide on site vaccinations at the jails."

The Ministry of the Solicitor General did not respond to questions about shots at the HWDC, instead directing CBC News to contact public health.

OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas is calling on the Ministry of the Solicitor General to ensure corrections staff get their shots. (CBC)

The ministry did say Ontario is moving into Phase 2 of its vaccine rollout, and outlined the groups of people who are now able to get a shot, bolding a section referring to people who live and work in congregate settings.

Thomas said some Hamilton corrections workers tried to get a shot last month, but were turned away despite booking an appointment.

Jail staff can get shots at mass vaccination clinics

Public health did not directly respond to a question asking if corrections officers had previously been turned away, pointing to a previous answer stating eligible officers will be able to book a shot at a mass vaccination clinic.

The city's vaccine task force following provincial direction on who gets shots first as part of Phase 2 of the rollout, which includes "congregate settings and correctional officers," said Berry.

"Eligible staff will receive an email from the province's online booking portal over the course of the next 24 hours with an invite to book a vaccine appointment ... at one of Hamilton's three large-scale vaccine clinics."

Currently, residents who are 60 and older are eligible for shots at the mass vaccine sites. It's not clear if that age requirement will be considered for correctional officers as well.

Inmates in Ontario have contracted COVID-19 at a higher rate than staff in jails and prisons, says Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

Piché is part of a group that has been tracking cases behind bars throughout the pandemic and pointed to figures from the end of March that show 1,087 prisoners in the province have been infected, as well as 338 staff members and four contractors.

Public health began a vaccination clinic for inmates at the Barton Street jail on Thursday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The professor said "it's not surprising" that public health would prioritize shots for inmates.

However, "It is critical that staff be vaccinated in short order in order to limit the spread and impact of COVID-19 behind and beyond bars," he said.

OPSEU stated it wants all front-line corrections staff to get vaccinated at the first opportunity.

"This is a question of public safety and that must be the number one priority," stated Eduardo Almeida, a corrections officer in Hamilton and treasurer for the union.

"Corrections staff can't work from home. Unless Hamilton public health officials think we should open virtual jails, they must vaccinate corrections staff immediately."