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

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Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health says the province will soon begin vaccinating prisoners as a group of advocates calls on the government to depopulate the facilities.

In a news release on Monday, the East Coast Prison Justice Society (ECPJS) said it’s “alarmed to learn that there has been no vaccination rollout either for provincial prisoners or correctional staff, despite prisons being obvious vectors of community and institutional co-transmission, and the heightened vulnerability & disproportionate numbers of Indigenous, racialized, and disabled prisoners.”

Prisoners are vulnerable to COVID-19 because they’re in a closed setting, with staff coming and going — much like a long-term care facility. Recognizing that risk and a number of outbreaks in prisons across Canada, the federal government began immunizing prisoners in its facilities in January.

At that time, the government’s plan for getting vaccines into jails was vague and as the Halifax Examiner reported then, ECPJS was calling on the province to vaccinate prisoners and depopulate the jails as it did last spring.

We received no response,” Monday’s news release stated.

“Now, with the sudden uptick in COVID-19 cases and community spread exceeding the first wave, we return to our basic concerns for prisoner safety and public health.”

The society said it’s been unable to confirm “that even prisoners who already qualify by age have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.”

To sum up the group’s call to action:

We urge government to take measures to effect mass release to mitigate the risks of institutional and further community spread. Moreover, access to vaccinations is required for prisoners and staff currently in correctional facilities, as well as residents and staff of transition houses. Last, frequent COVID-19 testing both in correctional facilities and transition houses is necessary to protect against asymptomatic spread.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang was asked about the plan for vaccinating prisoners during Monday’s COVID-19 briefing. His response:

Plan’s in place, information is already going out to our correctional staff and getting them into … one of the many community locations with a priority access so … that’s already been communicated to them. They need to step forward and get vaccinated.

Within probably the next week we’re going to be in and providing vaccine in the correctional facilities. We’re also looking at ways … and many people in our correctional facilities are there for short periods of time. They often come in and out on weekends on remand. So we’re looking at ways about how, on an ongoing basis, we immunize those people as they’re in the facilities on remand.

In an emailed statement, Nova Scotia Department of Justice spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said there are 383 people in provincial custody as of Monday.

“We continue to manage admissions and releases as we have since March 2020 with eligible inmates considered for temporary absence / early release.  Correctional Services has a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention plan in place and we continue to work closely with Public Health to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff in our facilities,” Fairbairn wrote.

“As outlined in Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 immunization plan, inmates and staff of correctional facilities are included in phase two:  Coronavirus (COVID-19): vaccine – Government of Nova Scotia, Canada . Vaccine rollout is determined by Public Health. As Dr. Strang indicated today, invitations are going to staff this week and public health is working to develop a plan for those in custody at provincial correctional facilities.”

Fairbairn’s response did not answer a few of the Examiner’s questions, namely, “Has there been any vaccine rollout in provincial facilities? How does it work? Clinics in jails? Which vaccine? How many prisoners have been vaccinated? How many staff?”

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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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