OTTAWA -- Canada's prison ombudsman is calling for alternatives to incarceration in a new report that shows the number of COVID-19 cases at federal facilities more than doubled in the pandemic's second wave.

Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger says new cases climbed to 880 at more than a dozen prisons between early November and Feb. 1, compared to 361 cases at six institutions in the first wave.

About 70 per cent of second-wave cases occurred at two Prairie facilities -- the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and Manitoba's Stony Mountain Institution -- leaving Indigenous inmates disproportionately affected, the report said.

The prisons are the two largest in the country and contain some of the system's oldest infrastructure, with an evident connection between viral spread and large shared living areas, as well as poor ventilation.

Meanwhile, health restrictions behind bars have hampered programs, such as educational and vocational classes, delayed parole hearings and community release, Zinger said. Three-metre distancing rules, for example, have reduced class sizes from as many as 15 inmates to between three and five, as backlogs continue to build.

Lack of access to computers exacerbates the challenge.

"'If offenders had access to technology, it would be much easier for them to be provided with assignments and assistance when teachers are unable to attend the site, or when there are restrictions on distributing materials for class,"' the report said, quoting a correctional officer.

Zinger called on the Correctional Service of Canada to prioritize early release of older inmates and those with underlying medical conditions, and to move program delivery out of prisons and into the community.

The ombudsman also asked Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to consider closing aging, costly penitentiaries in favour of rehabilitation outside prison walls.

"Beyond the impacts of COVID-19, a more rigorous, humane and cost-effective community-based approach to corrections is long overdue," the report said.

More than 3,800 cells sit empty across the country, equivalent to seven average-sized penitentiaries, he noted.

The Correctional Service of Canada says it has vaccinated about 600 older and medically compromised offenders, and plans to begin inoculating the rest of its 12,500 inmates in the spring.

"Our COVID-19 approach is based on science and evidence, and has followed public health guidelines and advice every step of the way," the agency said in a statement responding to Zinger's report Tuesday.

"While there is always more work to do, CSC has adapted and learned a great deal about the challenges of preventing and containing the COVID-19 virus over the past 11 months. We will continue to make everyone's safety our top priority as we work to fulfill our mandate during this challenging time."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2021.