Lachapelle and co.: Why Ottawa jail inmates vaccine-hesitant?

Imprisoned people must have access to information they can trust about COVID-19 vaccines. So far, the Ministry of the Solicitor General and Ottawa Public Health are failing them.

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As of mid-June 2021, fewer than half of the people held in Ontario’s provincial jails had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In keeping with this abysmal trend more than half a year later, the single-dose vaccination rate at our own local provincial jail, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), was just 43 per cent at the end of January 2022. Despite reassurances from the Ministry of the Solicitor General that each institution has a large on-site supply of COVID-19 vaccines, many people imprisoned under its supposed care are still hesitant to become vaccinated. If you were in their position, you might be too.

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First, provincial prisoners have reported to hotlines run by prisoners’ rights advocates around the province that information about the vaccines — their dosage, contents, side-effects, interactions with pre-existing illnesses and medications, etc. — is nearly non-existent. For example, when vaccines first became available at OCDC in May 2021, Deepan Budlakoti, who spent almost four-and-a-half years in custody at the Innes Road jail, told one reporter that the only information provided about the vaccines was a sign that read, “if you want a vaccine, put in for a vaccine.” We spoke to Budlakoti roughly two months after he had contracted COVID-19 at the jail and one month following his release from OCDC. He told us that not much has changed since last May:

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“Legally, we’re supposed to have the same care that people do outside of prison … If we put a request to get a vaccine or get information about the vaccine, you may not even get that information or may not even get the shot. Then, you have to follow up again, but you’re already in a hostile, confined environment with no PPE whatsoever. That’s another layer that I don’t think people on the outside realize is a part of going through this process … there’s no transparency, no accountability, and no oversight whatsoever in terms of prisoners getting the vaccine or information about the vaccine.”

For incarcerated people, many of whom have chronic health issues, the lack of information leaves them with unanswered questions about how vaccination will affect their health. Unlike the rest of us, people in jail have been unjustifiably denied information that could not only save their lives, but also improve health in our community.

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If that wasn’t enough, many incarcerated people don’t trust prison authorities because of the notoriously poor health care behind bars. In a context where vaccination information isn’t readily available inside jails, many imprisoned people wonder whether they’re being experimented upon, in keeping with historical injustices endured by people pushed to the margins. For example, the Tuskegee syphilis study (in which Black men in Alabama were experimentally infected with, and deliberately not treated for, syphilis); the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada; and many other examples of experimentation on people of colour, both in and out of prison understandably make incarcerated people suspicious of COVID-19 vaccines. It’s no wonder that many incarcerated people at OCDC don’t trust jail staff, the ministry or Ottawa Public Health (OPH) to act in their best interests.

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So far, neither the Solicitor General nor OPH have made much of an effort to address the underlying causes of vaccine hesitancy at OCDC, despite being made aware of these issues by prisoners’ rights advocates as vaccines became available. COVID-19 information video screenings are scarce. Information pamphlets aren’t being circulated even once vaccines are administered. Community volunteers, more likely to be trusted by imprisoned people, remain barred from the jail.

If we want to diminish the impact and length of the pandemic, we must effectively address vaccine hesitancy inside all congregate settings. Where OCDC in concerned, imprisoned people must have access to information they can trust about COVID-19 vaccines. Jail health is public health; most people living at OCDC will be rejoining us as city residents sooner rather than later, and the healthier they are when they are released, the healthier we are as a community.

Sophie Lachapelle, Jasmine Kainth and Louise Boisvert are graduate students in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, studying vaccine hesitancy. Their online petition to compel Solicitor General and OPH to take their responsibility for the health of incarcerated people at OCDC more seriously is here:

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