OTTAWA -- There has been strong reaction to the federal government’s plan to begin COVID-19 vaccinations for some inmates in federal institutions across the county.

Correctional Service of Canada will distribute 1,200 doses of the vaccines to those identified most at-risk.

In a statement, the CSC says as further supply of the vaccine becomes available, it will be offered to all federal inmates based on priority.

Commissioner Anne Kelly says the CSC expects to vaccinate approximately 600 inmates in the first phase with the Moderna vaccine.

"The health and safety of our employees, inmates, and the public is a top priority for the Correctional Service of Canada. This is very welcome news, as we know vaccines are a critical way to limit the spread of COVID-19. We will continue working with our public health partners, unions and stakeholders to roll out measures that help protect everyone during this public health pandemic," said Kelly.  

Tara Baker’s husband John Whalen is incarcerated at Joyceville Penitentiary in Kingston. The institution is in the middle of an outbreak, with a total 151 COVID-19 cases identified since December.

"He’s terrified of not making it out. He’s actually high-risk," Baker said during an interview with CTV News Ottawa from her home in Niagara Falls.

Whalen is in prison for drug offences. Baker says her 33-year-old husband was offered the vaccine last week, but turned down the opportunity to be part of the program.

"Due to the complications that he already has with his respiratory symptoms and previous allergies to previous medications and such, he said no," Baker says.

Corrections Canada has not specified which institutions will get the vaccine in the immediate rollout.

Many, mostly Conservative politicians have expressed condemnation of the move.

In his first address of the year, Ontario Premier Doug Ford among them.

"The most dangerous criminals in the entire country," he says. "How do you square this, how do you put them ahead of long term care patients? We're scraping every vaccine we can get.”

Opposition Leader Erin O'Toole, said on Twitter Tuesday evening that, "Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker."

The CSC says officers and staff will not be part of the program, but will be vaccinated by their home province or territory. 

"CSC has health care workers who provide close, direct care to inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 and who work in congregate living settings. We are working closely with provinces to ensure vaccines are prioritized for these workers in the first phase."

Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair, who is responsible for the move, defended the plan.

"We have a duty of care for those who are in our custody to ensure that they are treated fairly and that they are kept safe," he says. "I would also simply remind the premier and the conservative leader that, you know, frankly, the language of resentment and fear really has no place in this discussion."

Martha Paynter is a registered nurse and supports the move to vaccinate, but says staff should be included too.

"In the month of December, 3.5 per cent of prisoners in this country got COVID. In one month,” she says. "This is a population that is getting COVID at a disproportionate rate."