A jail cell in the north wing of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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The provincial government isn’t saying exactly how or when it will begin immunizing prisoners in provincial jails.

Advocates nationally and locally argue prisons and jails should be a priority for COVID-19 vaccinations because prisoners are a vulnerable population in a closed setting, with staff coming and going — much like a long-term care facility.

According to Correctional Service Canada, as of Tuesday, there had been 1,213 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in federal prisons and three deaths. There have been outbreaks in prisons in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and B.C.

As a result, prisoners in federal institutions started receiving vaccines last week, despite objections from Conservative politicians.

But the plan for provincial jails, where three-quarters of prisoners are awaiting trial, not convicted, has not been made public.

During last Friday’s COVID-19 briefing, the Examiner asked Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang about vaccines in provincial jails:

Examiner: The federal government is starting to immunize prisoners at its institutions today, including Springhill in Nova Scotia, sort of as a pilot starting with elderly prisoners and those with pre-existing conditions. What’s the plan for getting vaccines into provincial jails?

Strang: I know it’s on our list of priority groups. We can get back to you in the details on that. I don’t have that top of mind for myself today.

The Examiner followed up this week, asking the government, what’s the plan for getting vaccines into provincial jails?

“Nova Scotia will be following the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) guidance on the prioritization of the COVID-19 vaccine(s). They have identified residents and staff of all congregate settings as stage 2 priority,” Department of Justice spokesperson Heather Fairbairn replied in an email.

That guidance “recommends that as additional COVID-19 vaccine supplies become available with sufficient supply to vaccinate the above populations, authorized COVID-19 vaccine(s) should be offered to individuals without contraindications in the following populations,” including “Residents and staff of all other congregate settings (e.g., quarters for migrant workers, correctional facilities, homeless shelters).”

It’s unclear whether Stage 2 of the federal guidelines aligns with Phase 2 of Nova Scotia’s vaccine rollout plan, beginning in May. The government’s description of the target groups in Phase 2 makes no mention of prisoners or staff in provincial jails, naming only “Remaining health-care workers” and “Essential workers (currently being defined).”

The Examiner asked Fairbairn, “To clarify, does that mean prisoners and staff will be vaccinated during Phase 2 of Nova Scotia’s plan? And if so, where do they fall in Phase 2?”

“Those details will be determined by Public Health as part of the ongoing roll-out plan,” Fairbairn wrote.

In a news release this week, as reported by the Nova Scotia Advocate, the East Coast Prison Justice Society called out the government for its lack of attention to jails in the fight against COVID-19.

“The NS government has been silent on the need to apply the same science-based public health analysis to people in custody as to other vulnerable populations, with above average rates of illness and disease, cramped living quarters where infection can spread easily and quickly and frequent movement by staff and inmates in and out of the institutions,” the release said.

“Public health priorities demand rapid access to vaccines in this context.”

Nova Scotia has avoided outbreaks of COVID-19 in its jails, but as the Halifax Examiner reported in September, that’s because it depopulated the facilities.

The number of prisoners in custody is growing, according to the East Coast Prison Justice Society:

In-custody numbers show an upward trend, from a low of 251 following efforts to protect against COVID-19 outbreaks in the spring, to a high of 365 on Nov 15 – an increase of nearly 50%. The in-custody count on Jan 10 was 334. Approximately 75% of those in provincial custody have not been convicted and are awaiting trial on remand. Numbers routinely spike over the weekends as police drop prisoners at the jails to await weekday bail proceedings.

The unnecessary increase in the jail population since the province’s early adoption of responsible protective measures is inconsistent with COVID-19 risk mitigation and with protecting basic liberties.

The result is a 14-day quarantine policy for newly-arrived prisoners, followed by prolonged lockdowns and segregation.

“The conditions prisoners are forced to endure during this prolonged segregation are excessive, unnecessary and a violation of Canada’s commitment to human rights while mitigating the risks of transmission and facility-wide outbreaks,” said the release from the East Coast Prison Justice Society.

Prisoners are also prohibited from having visitors, “highly constrained in their ability to communicate with family, friends or lawyers by telephone or video link, given limited periods out of cell,” and according to the society, reporting hunger from long breaks between meals.

The society is calling on the government, “including Justice, Community Services and the NSHA to implement the following measures:

  1. Ensure staff and prisoners have priority access to COVID-19 vaccinations. This will not only mitigate risk of transmission, it may help resolve staff shortages which contribute to lockdowns;
  2. Re-institute expedited bail hearings and bail reviews, including pre-trial release proceedings on weekends;
  3. Reduce reliance on custodial options including police lock-ups, through policies to structure police discretion and investing in community release options;
  4. Resume the use of statutory powers to effect conditional release of sentenced persons, starting with persons serving short sentences who do not pose an immediate threat of violence;
  5. Reinstitute the interdepartmental, community-partnered Collaborative Release Planning Committee to ensure timely access to necessary health care and other community supports and services upon release;
  6. Collaborate with the non profit sector (including Elizabeth Fry Societies, Coverdale Courtwork Society and John Howard Society) to increase capacity for short- and long- term supports for persons released from detention and alternatives to pre-trial detention (“bail beds”);
  7. Ensure that all East Coast Forensic Hospital patients with conditional discharges are provided with meaningful access community based supports and services immediately and on an urgent basis.”

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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