Sask. inmates wait to hear when they’ll receive a COVID-19 vaccine; health ministry says it’s working with jails on a plan

© Provided by Star Phoenix Outside the Regina Correctional Centre.

Inmates incarcerated in Saskatchewan’s jails want to know about plans for them to get vaccinated — and an answer may soon be coming from the provincial Ministry of Health.

In a new open letter to the provincial government on Tuesday, Cory Cardinal, an inmate advocate who is currently incarcerated at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, wrote that inmates have a high risk due to pre-existing conditions such as HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and diabetes, and they still live in dorms where crowding remains a problem.

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He told The StarPhoenix by phone that he’s hearing from inmates concerned about their exclusion so far from the province’s vaccine rollout plans. He said inmates have seen programs cut, faced long periods of isolation, and have experienced deteriorating mental health. The sooner they can be vaccinated, the sooner they can have some semblance of a life, Cardinal said.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about being included and they have no faith in the Ministry (of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety) because of how they were treated (during) the outbreak,” he said, adding that he also wants a vaccine rollout plan for correctional officers.

In an email, the Ministry of Health said the Saskatchewan Health Authority is working with correctional facilities to develop a plan that provides vaccines to inmates according to the age-based sequencing in the second phase of the provincial vaccine strategy.

The variants of concern circulating in the community add a sense of urgency.

Sherri Maier of Beyond Prison Walls Canada said she’s hearing from many of the inmates at the Regina jail expressing worry, and that inmates elsewhere fear transfers from Regina to Saskatoon or Prince Albert may bring in the more transmissible variants.

Due to a high prevalence of variants among new infections in the Regina area, added restrictions are in effect for the time being.

“I don’t know if they’re going to be prepared for what’s coming when they weren’t the first time,” Maier said.

The Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety said in an email this week that it’s taken steps to reduce transfers between facilities as much as possible and any transfers that do occur would be subject to “strict precautions.”

The ministry said inmates would only be moved if they’ve previously tested negative for COVID-19 and aren’t presenting symptoms.

In addition to preventative measures already taken before the rise in variants in southern Saskatchewan, Corrections has also restricted inmates at the Regina reintegration unit from leaving the property as of March 26.

All positive COVID-19 tests, including ones from provincial jails, are now screened for variants, the ministry said.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Corrections said Thursday that three inmates at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre who have tested positive for COVID-19 are individually housed in cells on isolation units and another three inmates have “flu-like symptoms.”

As of March 31, there were seven active COVID-19 cases among inmates and three active cases among staff in the provincial corrections system. The ministry reported that 140 staff and 473 inmates have recovered from COVID-19.

tjames@postmedia.com

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