This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. on Jan. 7 to include comments from CSC that were not available when this story was originally published.
The union representing correctional officers across the country found out Monday that inmates in federal institutions will start receiving vaccines on Friday.
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) advised the union that one institution in each of the five regions will receive enough doses to vaccinate 10 inmates within that facility. The national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, Jeff Wilkins, said the vaccines will be administered to the most critical or eldest of the inmate population.
Wilkins was told this morning that the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon will be the institution in the prairie region selected for the initial rollout.
“(CSC) will do an assessment after that’s been done and provided everything goes well that they will distribute the remainder of their doses the following week,” Wilkins said in an interview with the Herald.
At the moment, the union’s main worry and question is when correctional officers will be included in the rollout.
“We feel that the CSC really needs to reprioritize how it is that they are sending this vaccine out because we have some serious problems in some of our institutions right now with our workforce,” said Wilkins.
He pointed to high cases in Stony Mountain Penitentiary and Saskatchewan Penitentiary as cause for concern. The facility had 74 positive COVID-19 cases as of Monday.
“We need to keep our frontline strong and our members need to be provided with that vaccine so that they’re protected,” Wilkins said.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the CSC said staff are vaccinated by their home province or territory. The CSC is working with the provinces and territories to “facilitate access” to the vaccine for staff while considering priority groups identified by the National Advisory Committee on Immunizations (NACI)
The CSC has told the union that they are following recommendations from NACI who advise that vaccinations be rolled out in phases.
“It’s appalling to me that we would be thinking about ‘oh let’s vaccinate all of the inmates before we vaccinate staff’,” Wilkins stated.
He added that he understands there needs to be some protection for older inmates or inmates who have underlying medical conditions, but staff are also facing COVID-19 patients when they go to work in the institutions.
“I don’t understand why we would not be classified under stage one just as the healthcare worker who’s working directly with COVID patients in the hospital,” he added. “That’s a protection that, to me, our department is legally mandated to provide under the labour code and I think that it needs to be reprioritized.”
In their statement, the CSC said they have health care workers providing close and direct care to COVID-19 positive inmates.
“We are working closely with provinces to ensure vaccines are prioritized for these workers in the first phase,” the statement said.
Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the rollout plan on social media Tuesday evening.
“Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker,” O’Toole Tweeted.
The Conservative Party also released a statement on Wednesday echoing the comments of their leader.
“It’s outrageous that incarcerated criminals will receive vaccines before vulnerable seniors in long-term care homes, front-line healthcare workers, first responders, and correctional officers,” the statement read. Wilkins said he thinks O’Toole’s comments are regarding the priority of the rollout and are likely the “sentiments of the majority of the Canadian public.”
While Wilkins believes that correctional officers among other front line workers are a priority for the vaccination, he said the public has to realize that the CSC has a legal requirement to provide medical care to the inmate population.
He added that the consultation process between the CSC, the national union and other unions “hasn’t been all that great.”
Wilkins said the union was advised about CSC’s plan on Monday morning without any consultation but he doesn’t think it’s too late for their voices to be included in the discussion. “I think the CSC has the ability right now to quickly prioritize where it is that they’re going to distribute this vaccination and I think it should be to those areas that are highly problematic,” he explained.