Prisoners across the country said in May they lived in fear of COVID-19 because they couldn't socially distance properly. Now, it appears their worst fears are being realized and prisoners' rights groups say inmates must not be left behind as the country fights the pandemic and vaccinations begin. (CBC News)

Advocates say prisoners must not be left behind in vaccination campaign

As Canada moves ahead with the largest mass vaccination program in the country’s history–a program abetted Wednesday by Health Canada’s approval of  Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine–prisoners’ rights advocates say Canadian inmates must not be left behind.

Over 30 per cent of federal prisoners are Indigenous Canadians; a quarter of persons in prison are over 50 years old.

The advocates note that both groups are especially susceptible to illness, especially in buildings with poor ventilation where physical distancing is at a premium. 

“I don’t think they should go to the front of the line, but I certainly don’t think they should be denied their rightful place in the priority line simply because they’re prisoners,” Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont., on Dec. 17, the day a COVID-19 outbreak affecting nearly 90 people inside was announced. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg)

Latimer’s comments came as the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) announced Wednesday that three inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at the Fraser Valley Institution.

A press release from the CSC said the inmates had recently been transferred into the facility from another region.

“The group has been in medical isolation and closely monitored by staff since arrival. The transmission is believed to have occurred prior to arrival at Fraser Valley Institution,” according to the press release.

The announcement followed a series of other reported outbreaks at Canadian prisons–including Joyceville Institution, near Kingston, Ont., Stony Mountain Institution, near Winnipeg, and the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, near Prince Albert.

CP’s Lauren Krugel reports that–as of Monday–there were a total of 201 active COVID-19 cases in federal prisons, according to the Correctional Service of Canada.

Krugel reports that there have also been several outbreaks in provincially run jails.

Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba. (CBC/Justin Fraser)

Inmates are “living in this incredibly restrictive experience, but also facing very grave risk of illness transmission,” Martha Paynter, a registered nurse in Halifax who provides reproductive care to inmates, told CP.

A study released in January found that members of Canada’s Indigenious communities account for more than 30 per cent of the federal inmate population, up from 25 per cent four years ago–a figure that concerns Anita Ho, associate professor in bioethics and health services research at the University of British Columbia,

“In general, health among Indigenous peoples in Canada, because of various social determinants of health, are poorer to start with,” Ho told CP.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunizations has recommended that adult Indigenous communities be included in Stage 1 of vaccine delivery and said congregate settings should be included in Stage 2.

The Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert. (CBC/Guy Quenneville)

Vaccinations of residents and workers at long-term care homes began Dec. 14.

COVID-19 is generally believed to have entered the Canadian prison system in mid-March when an employee tested positive for the virus at the Toronto South Detention Centre.

In May, a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder and some prominent human rights groups took the federal government to court over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canadian prisons.

As of 4 a.m. ET Thursday, 14,597 persons had died from COVID-19 in Canada.

There have been 528,354 cases since the pandemic began last winter.

With files from The Canadian Press (Lauren Krugel), CBC News

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