The Conservatives are condemning a COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan that will prioritize some federal prisoners — a plan advocates say is a sound policy that will protect vulnerable people both inside and outside the prison system.
Conservative public safety critic Shannon Stubbs and Quebec Conservative MP Richard Martel issued a statement today calling it “outrageous” that incarcerated criminals could receive vaccines before some seniors in long-term care homes, front line healthcare workers, first responders and correctional officers.
“Government data from this past year shows that prison outbreaks have been isolated. The reality is that the federal government’s failure to secure sufficient vaccine supply for all Canadians means that difficult choices must be made. Conservatives believe vaccinating the most vulnerable first must be the government’s top priority,” the statement reads.
“Justin Trudeau needs to do the right thing and ensure that vulnerable seniors, front-line medical staff, and other essential workers are first in line for the vaccine.”
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair confirmed that about 600 federal inmates who are elderly or have pre-existing health conditions will be vaccinated on a priority basis. He said the federal government is following the advice of the national advisory committee on immunization, which identified congregate living settings, including prisons, as “high risk” locations.
Priority for those at ‘acute risk’
“That’s why, in our very earliest distribution of our vaccines, we’re making a small number of those vaccines available to those individuals who are particularly at acute risk in our federal institutions,” Blair said.
“We have a duty of care for those who are in our custody to ensure that they are treated fairly and they are kept safe.”
Sen. Kim Pate, a long-time prisoners’ advocate, criticized the Conservatives’ stance.
“I find it problematic that individuals who, as far as I am aware, have no medical or epidemiological expertise seem more interested in inciting controversy than in ensuring all efforts are made to prevent the spread of the virus,” she said in an email.
Pate said protecting vulnerable prisoners will protect others in the community.
“As individuals in congregate settings, they and the front line workers in institutions are among those who health authorities feel should be vaccinated in order to help prevent community spread and hopefully lighten the load on health care providers,” she said.
Responding to a CTV report on the prisoner vaccinations late Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the rollout plan.
“Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker,” he said on Twitter.
Criminologist calls O’Toole statement ‘unethical’
University of Ottawa criminologist and prison expert Justin Piché called O’Toole’s statement “unethical and reprehensible.”
“Above all, if we heeded this call, it would be dangerous not only for prisoners but all of us, as prison staff return to their families and our communities day in and day out,” he said.
“When COVID strikes behind bars, it doesn’t stay there and when it spreads into our communities from there, it puts everyone at heightened risk. It’s in our interest for prisoners to get priority access to vaccines alongside people that are vulnerable in other congregate settings. Prison staff, like health care providers, also need priority access.”
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, noted that 600 vaccinations represent only about five per cent of the federal prison population. Priority for vaccines should be based on public health decisions based on risk of contamination and medical vulnerability, she said.
“Prisoners should not be denied their rightful place in priority for the vaccine because they are imprisoned,” she said.