After COVID outbreak at Thunder Bay correctional facilities, calls grow for staff, inmates to get vaccine
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa says inmates should be considered "vulnerable populations"
After an inmate in a Thunder Bay correctional facility tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the declaration of a COVID-19 outbreak at two facilities in the city late Wednesday evening, calls for a plan to vaccinate inmates and staff at correctional facilities have grown.
However, the provincial government has been unable to provide details thus far on when or how those vaccinations may occur.
Advocates and union leaders have questioned the province's plans since at least December, when a number of large COVID-19 outbreaks at both federal and provincial correctional institutions in southern Ontario demonstrated the vulnerability of staff and inmates in those facilities.
As of January 4, there were 242 resolved cases and nine active cases of COVID-19 across 17 provincially operated correctional facilities, according to a publicly available list maintained by the Ministry of the Solicitor General. The ministry operates a total of 25 corrections institutions in Ontario.
The president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 708 Shawn Bradshaw, a correctional officer at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, said it was only a matter of time until COVID-19 entered either of the two facilities in the northwestern Ontario city.
"It's been a concern since it started breaking out this time last year. We've been preparing for this. The way it's going through the general population outside of jail, it was inevitable that it would would get into the jail," said Bradshaw.
Inmate with COVID-19 had spent time at both correctional facilities in Thunder Bay
Bradshaw said he could not share specific details about the inmate who initially tested positive for COVID-19 because of "confidentiality and security concerns," but said the inmate had spent "a considerable amount of time" at the Thunder Bay District Jail before being transferred to the correctional centre to complete the remainder of their isolation period. It was on the inmate's second day at the lower-security facility that their test came back positive for COVID-19.
The union president said it is normal for inmates to be transferred to the correctional centre to complete portions of their isolation and remand, given the continued overcrowding at the district jail.
"Space has become a premium. They have so many inmates in the intake units that the jail is becoming unfeasible. So [the correctional centre has] sectioned off a portion of our building to bring some inmates over to alleviate those pressures and complete the rest of their intake isolation time at the correctional centre. We've had no choice," Bradshaw said.
"The cells were filled with people living in booths and in places they are not supposed to live, but [the jail] literally cannot handle the amount of inmates coming in. It just didn't have the space."
Advocates, politicians ask for timeline on inmate vaccinations
NDP Member of Provincial Parliament for the Kiiwetinoong riding Sol Mamakwa, who has been sharply critical of the conditions at the Thunder Bay jail, said he was very concerned to hear about COVID getting into the facility.
"I've been to the Thunder Bay jail before and I know how overcrowded it is. We have to keep [the inmates] safe and this issue cannot be an either-or situation as we start looking at providing vaccines," Mamakwa said.
"We have to be able to vaccinate all vulnerable people as quickly as possible and I believe inmates are vulnerable."
Mamakwa said he agrees that residents of long-term care homes and frontline healthcare workers need to be prioritized, but added the lack of any detailed plan from the Ontario government to vaccinate the range of vulnerable populations is a concern.
John Howard Society of Thunder Bay executive director Kevin Haynen added that vaccinating inmates and staff at correctional facilities is also about community safety.
"This isn't just about the inmates living in these congregate settings. It's about the movement of people, not only between institutions, but also staff coming in and out…and our community is certainly vulnerable when there are these outbreaks because these aren't static institutions where once you're in, you're in," said Haynen.
But Ontario's Solicitor General Sylvia Jones would not commit to a timeline on when inmates or correctional staff could expect to be vaccinated.
"The vaccination roll-out is, at this point, very much focused on long-term care residents, staff and essential caregivers, because the highest prevalence rate and the highest death rate, unfortunately, happens in the long term care facilities. So that is our focus right now," said Jones.
"As we get a bigger supply than we have, we have a plan to continue expanding that. And that, of course, includes staff and individuals serving within our corrections facilities across Ontario," she said.
Canadian government launches vaccination program for federal inmates
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization meanwhile has recommended that residents and staff of congregate settings that do not provide care for seniors, such as correctional facilities, should be included in the second phase of the vaccination roll-out.
Following that guidance, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) announced Wednesday it was beginning a pilot project to vaccinate "older, medically vulnerable federal inmates against COVID-19," which would begin as soon as January 8.
The media release said the federal agency expected to vaccinate about 600 inmates in the first phase.
Jeff Wilkins, the national president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said he welcomed recognition that correctional facilities are locations where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is very high. But he added correctional staff need to be prioritized as well.
"The number of our members that have been infected by this virus is around 260. And when we look at those numbers, compared to any other federal public servants, we're disproportionately affected," said Wilkins.
Yet, the federal government stated in their media release that "CSC staff are vaccinated by their home province or territory."
And in Ontario, no timeline has been specified for correctional staff.
- This story has been updated to include the fact that the province operates a total of 25 correctional facilities.Jan 07, 2021 10:51 AM ET