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Conservative Rhetoric and the Prisoner Vaccine Dilemma

Opinion by Katso Ramodimoosi. This piece is part of The Global Vaccine Challenge, a series by Chanel Best on the inequalities in access and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

A prison courtyard with a basketball court. A concrete wall lined with barbed wire and security cameras surrounds the courtyard.

On January 7th, 2021, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) announced that it would begin the vaccination of older and medically vulnerable federal inmates against COVID-19 as part of the first phase of the vaccine rollout. Following the recommendation of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), the CSC distributed 1,200 doses of the vaccine to high-risk inmates [1]. This decision was met by immediate disapproval from Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole. In a tweet that clearly intended to provoke a polarized response, O’Toole stated: “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker [2].” O’Toole’s tweet was indicative of the wider trend towards reactionary politics in recent years, demeaning a specific group to gain political support. His tweet contributes to a rhetoric aimed at creating fear, dividing and alienating each other when what is needed to tackle this pandemic is a rhetoric of care and responsibility for others. Troubling as it may be, the reaction of the Conservative Party to the prison vaccination policy is not surprising. They have long had aggressive and sometimes even unethical “tough on crime” reforms when in power [3].

NACI recommended vaccine distribution in correctional centres following several COVID-19 outbreaks in Canadian Federal Prisons [4]. Prisons are a natural hotspot for any contagious disease. Inmates are restrained to close quarters and are only allowed to go outside for fresh air twice a week, at best, making physical distancing nearly impossible.[5]. As of mid-March 1, 7,029 COVID-19 cases have been linked to Canada’s jails, prisons and penitentiaries [6]. Of them 5,045 were prisoners, 1,713 were staff, 6 were contractors and 256 were unspecified personnel [7]. Continued outbreaks in correctional centres pose an even greater risk as the prevalence of variants of concern increases. Toronto South Detention Centre confirmed that of the 70 cases reported on March 16th, 2021, over half of them screened positive for variants of concern [8]. The research showing the pressing need for vaccination distribution in federal prisons is insurmountable. The discussion raised by members of the Conservative Party is not about the ability of the vaccines to protect the health of prisoners but rather if prisoners are worthy of that protection.

If O’Toole had any true interest in protecting the vulnerable members of the public, he would endorse the decision to supply high-risk prisoners with vaccines. The rate of infection in federal prisons thus far is five times that of the Canadian public and of the 7,000 prison-related cases 1,984 were not prisoners [9]. This confirms that prison outbreaks pose a serious threat both within and outside the correction centres. Following O’Toole’s tweet, Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford announced that Canada should “not give the most dangerous criminals in our country the vaccine before we give it to our long-term care patients, most vulnerable and other elderly people” [10]. The logic prevailing here was simple. Most Canadian’s are eager to receive the vaccine which was in short supply, therefore those who have committed crimes tend to be viewed unsympathetically [11]. Not only is this morally dubious it violates Canadian federal laws that provide inmates with access to healthcare.

What is completely disregarded in the conservative stance is that the 600 people receiving the vaccine in federal prisons are some of Canada’s most vulnerable people. While overall incarceration rates have remained relatively stable the number of people over 50 in federal institutions has more than doubled over the last decade [12]. The aging prison population is also marked by other vulnerabilities that make them high-risk. About 68% of federal inmates are overweight or obese [13]. That number increases to 90% for those over 65 [14]. Evidence has shown that being obese or overweight and being elderly can increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 therefore justifying the dire need for vaccine provision for people in federal correction centers [15].

O’Toole and Ford also ignore section 86 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act which outlines the healthcare obligation of the state to inmates [17]. The wider implications of this reaction is rooted in an ideological belief that some people are more worthy of protection than others [18]. Associate professor at the University of Toronto Alison Thompson, whose research focuses on ethical issues in public health, believes that “the fundamental premise of all vaccination programs ought to be that all humans have equal moral worth" [19]. Similarly, NACI has stressed equity citing gender, pre-existing conditions, ethnicity, homelessness and socio-economic status as factors affecting vulnerability and risk [20]. The troubling value judgement made by O’Toole and Ford is that as an inmate your access to the vaccine should be restricted because inmates do not have equal moral worth to free members of society.

The reaction of the conservative party is reminiscent of the “governing through crime” political strategy employed in the United States during the 1960s. The strategy entailed increasing public fear of crime and promising protection with a wide range of tactics and policies such as increased policing, aggressive prosecution and harsh punishment [21]. In the US the shift to governing through crime occurred alongside Republican strategies to gain public support in the South by appealing to racism [22]. While explicit racism was becoming increasingly taboo, politicians took to discussing topics of race in heavily coded language. The use of coded or suggestive language in political messaging to garner support from a particular group without provoking the opposition is known as dog-whistle politics [23]. Through debates on the death penalty and sentence reform, the Republican party appealed to racism through dog-whistle politics [24].

This approach is not exclusive to the United States. Conservative Party member and former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper was notorious for his “tough on crime” policies. Harper changed drug laws and youth sentencing making it harder and costlier to gain a pardon [25]. He also rejected counsel for experts who called the changes unnecessary and a costly threat to human rights [26]. It is highly concerning that O’Toole seems to be following in Harper’s footsteps. The gross overrepresentation of indigenous communities in the prison system should make us question what exactly Doug Ford and Erin O’Toole are signaling when referring to these “dangerous criminals”. Yes, correctional centres do house dangerous criminals [27]. However, O’Toole ignores the diversity of these institutions, reducing every incarcerated person as unworthy of healthcare. The over-representation of racialized individuals in federal prisons is a factor in the ideological belief that prisoners are less worthy of receiving basic healthcare amidst a global pandemic. Furthermore, not every incarcerated person is a criminal. Cases of wrongful conviction and remand, being innocent until proven guilty, are not uncommon in CSC [28]. Setting aside the exceptions, even those rightfully convicted of their crimes are entitled to access to healthcare within the prison system according to Canadian law.

Given that the 1,200 vaccine doses would be given to the 600 most vulnerable inmates, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, it is evident that the picture painted by Ford and O’Toole is far from the reality. Their attempt to instill resentment of incarcerated people is poorly disguised as support of front-line workers and the vulnerable public. In response to extraordinary and widespread anxiety about health and economic well-being, O’Toole and Ford have made assertions that prisoners will come last. The danger in this is that although deeply appealing and emotionally satisfying to some, divisive rhetoric does nothing to remedy a pandemic that affects us all.

  1. Canada, Correctional Service. “Correctional Service Canada COVID-19 Vaccine Roll-out .” Government of Canada, January 7, 2021. 

  2. O'Toole, Erin. “Not One Criminal Should Be Vaccinated Ahead of Any Vulnerable Canadian or Front Line Health Worker.” Twitter. Twitter, January 6, 2021.  

  3. Gerster, Jane. “Harper Was Tough on Crime, Trudeau Promised a New Approach - Did He Deliver?” Global News. Global News, October 6, 2019. 

  4. Canada, Correctional Service. “Correctional Service Canada COVID-19 Vaccine Roll-out .” Government of Canada, January 7, 2021.

  5. Finlay, Carol. “Finlay: COVID-19 and Canada's Prisons – We Must Treat Inmates More Humanely.” ottawacitizen. Ottawa Citizen, January 19, 2021.

  6. Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Criminalization and Punishment Education Project. Rep. Update on COVID-19 and Prison Settings: Increased Crowding behind Bars, Outbreaks with New COVID-19 Variants, Most Prisoners Remain Unvaccinated. Toronto, ON: Centre for Access to Information and Justice, 2021.  

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ontario COVID-19 Update: Premier Ford Announces Voluntary Testing at Pearson Airport – Jan. 6, 2021. YouTube. YouTube, 2021.  

  11. Wherry, Aaron. “Back of the Line: Vaccines and the Brawl over Who Goes First | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, January 8, 2021.  

  12. Government of Canada, Office of the Correctional Investigator. Aging and Dying in Prison: An Investigation into the Experiences of Older Individuals in Federal Custody - February 28, 2019 - Office of the Correctional Investigator, February 28, 2019. 

  13. Government of Canada, Office of the Correctional Investigator. “Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2014-2015.” Office of the Correctional Investigator, December 14, 2015. 

  14. Ibid.

  15. “Obesity, Race/Ethnicity, and COVID-19.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 22, 2021. 

  16. Branch, Legislative Services. “Consolidated Federal Laws of Canada, Corrections and Conditional Release Act.” Corrections and Conditional Release Act, May 27, 2021.  

  17. Wherry, Aaron. “Back of the Line: Vaccines and the Brawl over Who Goes First | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, January 8, 2021.  

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Kerr, Lisa. “Opinion: What Erin O'Toole Is Really Saying When He Says Criminals Shouldn't Get Early Access to Vaccines.” The Globe and Mail, January 11, 2021. 

  21. Ibid.

  22. Gerster, Jane. “Harper Was Tough on Crime, Trudeau Promised a New Approach - Did He Deliver?” Global News. Global News, October 6, 2019.  

  23. Shapiro, Adam. “Perspective | The Racist Roots of the Dog Whistle.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 21, 2020.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Gerster, Jane. “Harper Was Tough on Crime, Trudeau Promised a New Approach - Did He Deliver?” Global News. Global News, October 6, 2019.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Ontario COVID-19 Update: Premier Ford Announces Voluntary Testing at Pearson Airport – Jan. 6, 2021. YouTube. YouTube, 2021.

  28. Government of Canada, Department of Justice. “Chapter 10 - At-Risk Populations.” PPSC, April 25, 2019.

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