The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has administered COVID-19 vaccine shots to nearly 75 per cent of all federal prisoners — a vaccination rate that is much higher than the rate for the general population.
The federal government has been leading vaccine procurement efforts on behalf of the provinces and territories — but it also has held back a number of shots for its own purposes.
While health care is generally provincial jurisdiction, Ottawa alone is responsible for two groups: active Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel and federal inmates.
Of the 25 million COVID-19 doses that have been delivered to Canada, 157,080 have been reserved for the “federal allocation,” which also includes shots earmarked for the Public Health Agency of Canada and Global Affairs Canada.
The number of prisoners who have been vaccinated is high but, according to statistics released to CBC News by the Department of National Defence (DND), the number of CAF personnel who’ve had at least one dose is even higher.
More than 90 per cent of all eligible CAF members, including regular force and full-time reservists who serve more than 180 days a year, have had one dose and 20 per cent of them are fully vaccinated — a second dose vaccination rate that is nearly four times higher than what has been reported among the general population.
Less than 55 per cent of the broader Canadian population has had a first dose, while roughly 5 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Some CAF members have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19; personnel have been deployed to hard-hit long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec and others have been sent to short-staffed intensive care units.
A DND spokesperson said the exact number of CAF personnel who have had first or second doses could not be released for “operational security reasons” but they did say more than 70 per cent of the 115,000 Moderna doses allocated to the armed forces have been administered.
“CAF members continue to show their dedication in the fight against COVID-19 in Canada by voluntarily being vaccinated to help stop the spread of this deadly virus,” the spokesperson said.
More than 10,000 shots administered in prisons
According to data provided by CSC, 9,613 prisoners have received at least one dose of the Moderna vaccine, with 1,266 having been fully vaccinated with two doses.
The vaccine coverage rates are significantly higher among white (80.2 per cent) and Indigenous inmates (75.9 per cent) than they are among other racial groups.
Fewer than 60 per cent of non-Indigenous people of colour in federal prison have had a shot, according to the CSC data, which is current as of May 24.
Incarcerated women are slightly more likely to have been vaccinated; 77.6 per cent of prisoners at female sites have had a shot, compared to 74.7 per cent among those at male institutions.
Women in federal penitentiaries in the Pacific region (B.C. and Yukon), however, reported the lowest prisoner vaccination rates nationwide, with fewer than 63 per cent having had a shot compared to 85 per cent of female prisoners in Quebec.
While the Atlantic provinces have so far posted some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country — federal data show fewer than 60 per cent of adults in those four provinces have had a first dose — 76 per cent of CSC prisoners in the region have had a shot.
Justin Piché is a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and a director at the Carceral Studies Research Collective.
Since the early days of the pandemic, Piché and other prisoners’ rights advocates have been calling on the federal government to reduce the inmate population to stop the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.
‘No political will’
There have been more than 2,100 cases reported in CSC facilities — 1,530 prisoners and 607 staff — since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. While numbers vary greatly, as many as 14,000 prisoners are in custody nationwide at any given time.
Piché said Ottawa has largely ignored demands to release some offenders to reduce crowding — “There was no political will,” he said — and instead chose to focus on an aggressive vaccination campaign that now appears to be working reasonably well.
(The number of federal inmates has dropped by some 13 per cent over the last year but Piché attributes that decline to court delays that have resulted in fewer people sentenced.)
“The federal government has done far too little during the course of this pandemic to reduce the number of prisoners living in the biggest congregate settings in the country. Instead, they made the choice that vaccinations were the way to quell the heat they were getting from advocates,” he said.
“Even though they got some flack from Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole for offering vaccines to prisoners, that heat was probably less than what they would’ve gotten if mass releases had happened.”
Late last year, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended prisoners be among the first groups to get vaccinated because they live in relatively cramped conditions where it may be easier to contract the virus.
Ottawa followed that advice when it began part of the prison vaccination program in early January.
O’Toole subsequently criticized the plan to vaccinate 600 elderly prisoners, saying it was unfair to give criminals vaccines before other groups. “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker,” he said in a Jan. 5 tweet.
A spokesperson for Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, the party’s public safety critic, did not respond to a request for comment on the robust CSC vaccination rates.
Piché said reducing COVID-19 transmission in prisons is important to the broader community because CSC workers can act as vectors, spreading the virus in the cities and towns that surround these institutions. And prisoners who are released after serving their sentences pose a risk as well.
“What happens behind the walls doesn’t stay there. There are ramifications for all of us. It’s not just about incarcerated people. It’s about everyone,” he said.
“It’s great that CSC has gotten first doses to so many prisoners but we know that the first dose isn’t enough to curb it altogether. They need those second doses. We need to address the vaccine hesitancy that some of them still have.”
He attributes the comparatively high vaccination rates to CSC efforts to disseminate information about the safety and efficacy of shots to family members of prisoners.
CSC also works with Indigenous elders and liaison officers to offer culturally sensitive programming to First Nations, Metis and Inuit prisoners.
As for the lower vaccination rates among visible minorities, Piché said it’s likely attributable to racialized groups being more distrustful of the health care system, given the legacy of racism in this field. “Something is definitely amiss here,” Piché said.
A spokesperson for CSC said staff “continue to engage with anyone who has refused a vaccine,” reminding them of the benefits of getting immunized.
Shots are still available for those who have skipped getting a shot and new admissions will also have a chance to be vaccinated, the spokesperson said.