The directive to offer provincial jail inmates free canteen products and a meat tray, if a minimum number agreed to be vaccinated for COVID-19, was quickly revamped after at least one reluctant inmate was assaulted, the Free Press has learned.
The email directive issued to jail administrators Friday quickly pitted inmates who wanted the "reward" against those who didn’t want to be vaccinated, exposing both inmates and staff to increased risk of violence, a source said Monday.
"This is going to be a s--- storm, because everybody is really, really mad," the source said. "Every time there is a fight, I am putting myself at risk. Every fight that we have to go in and respond to and stop puts us in jeopardy. Yes, I want them vaccinated, but not like this."
The source said a message sent to jail superintendents on Friday directed that staff encourage inmates to receive the vaccine, with a promise that if 90 per cent of inmates in a unit did so, they would each get a bottle of pop, a bag of chips, a chocolate bar, a 15-minute phone call to family, and a meat and cheese tray for the entire unit.
"They have to have 90 per cent or no one gets anything," the source said.
In jail, inmates view a bag of chips or bottle of pop as currency they can use to gamble, purchase contraband or buy sexual favours, the source said, and anyone who stands in the way of earning that "money" can be a target for intimidation or violence.
"If there are 40 guys in a unit and five guys don’t want it, well we need one of those five guys to flip, so you take the smallest guy or the weakest guy or the guy with the most (cognitive) issues and you either bully him or threaten him. If that doesn’t work, you beat the crap out of him so he will agree to be vaccinated," the source said.
If the 90 per cent threshold isn’t reached, those who resisted could be targeted for retribution, the source said.
“If there are 40 guys in a unit and five guys don’t want it, well we need one of those five guys to flip, so you take the smallest guy or the weakest guy or the guy with the most (cognitive) issues and you either bully him or threaten him."
As of Friday, the directive had resulted in at least one reported incident of a Headingley Correctional Centre inmate assaulting another inmate who did not want to be vaccinated, a shoving match between two other inmates, and three reluctant inmates agreeing to be vaccinated after suspected intimidation by other inmates, the source said.
"I just think it’s asinine that this is something that we are being told to do… I think we are taking advantage of people who are marginalized, who don’t want the vaccine. We are bribing them to take it and we are painting a target on their back if they don’t," the source said.
A second, well-placed reliable source confirmed the Headingley jail incident, saying the quota requirement was eliminated as a result.
"I don’t know if the (administrator responsible) was trying to get creative to get an uptick in vaccinations… but because they had this one fight, they took (the quota requirement) away," the source said.
"We are bribing them to take it and we are painting a target on their back if they don’t."
Another source told the Free Press all inmates who agree to watch a 15-minute informational video are given a chocolate bar; if they agree to be vaccinated, they are given a bag of chips and a bottle of pop.
A Manitoba Justice spokesperson, in an email, did not acknowledge the assault incident or the short-lived quota requirement.
"Inmates are being encouraged to receive the vaccination and are being provided with information to ensure they can make informed consent," the spokesperson said.
"Post-vaccination, inmates can receive snacks such as chips or candy bars through canteen profits. These are not contingent on other inmates in the unit getting the vaccine. This approach is in effect at all provincial correctional facilities, and we will continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments as needed."
John Howard Society of Manitoba acting president Sharon Perrault said her contacts in the jails have told her vaccine participation rates "are almost 100 per cent."
Perrault said she would rather see the jails focus on informing inmates, not rewarding them with treats.
"I would be more championing… an opportunity to ask questions, to dispel the anxiety and the fear over getting the shot," she said.
Manitoba has five provincially run jails: Headingley, Milner Ridge, The Pas, Winnipeg Remand Centre and the Women's Correctional Centre.
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