SASKATOON -- The Canadian government is conducting a new study at a Saskatchewan jail to better understand how COVID-19 spreads behind bars.

Regina Correctional Centre inmates who want to take part will take a blood test to see if they have the antibodies for the virus that causes COVID-19.

The voluntary study is also being conducted at jails in British Columbia and Quebec, as well as federal institutions across the country.

Dr. Alexander Wong, a physician in Regina and infectious disease professor, will be part of Saskatchewan’s chapter of the study.

“It's basically a way for us to try to understand and determine what the prevalence of COVID-19 infection has been in the corrections population,” Wong told CTV News.

He said it’s an important study to learn more about COVID-19 among the most vulnerable and marginalized people.

Wong expects there’s going to be a higher rate of COVID-19 in jails than anticipated.

“There's probably a large proportion of our marginalized populations who got sick and just kind of sucked it up, and didn't necessarily go to get tested and didn't necessarily go get assessed in any way,” he said.

Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair of the task force conducting the study, said the findings could affect measures and vaccination plans behind bars.

“It will help us to determine where we need to go in terms of vaccination. It will also give us an idea about what the public health measures are like inside the institution, and if there’s anything that needs to be modified,” Hankins said.

A new report, written by Canada’s correctional investigator, found Saskatchewan Penitentiary is one of the hardest hit prisons in the country.

It has the second highest number of COVID cases — only trailing behind Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Institution.

Prisoner rights advocate Justin Piché believes the inmate antibody study will be helpful, but should have been done at the start of the pandemic.

“I think this should have been done earlier, certainly following the first wave of the pandemic in order to prepare ourselves,” said Piché, a professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

Piché said infection rates behind bars can come back into the community — referencing staff who go in and out of facilities, and inmates who get released.

Saskatchewan’s part of the study is expected to get underway in the coming months.