Do Ontario prisoners need more phone access?

Provincial inmates are limited to 20-minute collect calls. Critics say it’s time to update the system so that prisoners can access the services they need
By Tebasum Durrani and Clara Pasieka - Published on Dec 02, 2019
Families can be charged $25 for a 20-minute call from an Ontario prison. (iStock.com/Riichiro Akazaki)

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When Krista tried calling a 24-hour mental-health crisis line from an Ontario jail, she says, she couldn’t connect. “I tried three or four times, and it wouldn’t go through. I was having a mental breakdown … in here, they don’t care,” says Krista (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) from inside a provincial detention centre. 

Advocates, academics, and prisoners themselves suggest that barriers to accessing services remotely from inside prison are common. Experts say that they are the result of an outdated telephone system that is overseen by the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General and, since 2013, has been contracted out to Bell Canada.

“The telephone system is one of those problems that just creates a cluster of other issues,” says Souheil Benslimane, coordinator of the Jail Accountability and Information Line, citing “problems accessing justice,” as well as increased inmate isolation and mental-health challenges. “Communication, as many prisoners point out, is a right, and if you aren’t given a meaningful way to communicate, it’s basically the state setting you up for failure."

Currently, the telephone system for the roughly 7,500 people incarcerated in provincial prisons requires expensive collect calls that are capped at 20 minutes and limited to landlines. This creates challenges for inmates — even when they are able to connect with service providers. “A lot of the time you don’t get everything said or done,” Krista says. “If you are calling an organization and are put on hold and it cuts out, it could be hard to reach them again.”

Stephanie Moulton, a program coordinator with Prisoners With HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), a non-profit that provides supports to Canada’s incarcerated population, agrees that it’s a problem. Moulton notes that many mental-health and addiction assessments — which are often required for entry into programs immediately upon release from prison — cannot be completed in 20 minutes. “An assessment for a drug-abstinence-based residential program could take up to an hour,” she says.

And, if a prisoner is in solitary confinement or there are lockdowns at the jail, Moulton says, “You might have the choice of having a shower or making a phone call.”

Lindsay Jennings, also a program coordinator with PASAN, says that the time limitation is especially problematic when someone calls expressing suicidal thoughts: “We have to do active listening, crisis intervention, safe-talk — all in 20 minutes. We have to de-escalate and make sure that when we hang up the phone the person is safe — safe with their feelings [and] safe physically.”

Jennings also notes that it’s impossible to place a call to a switchboard, because keying in any options results in the system disconnecting. That often means that incarcerated people can’t connect to services that they have been referred to or that have been court-ordered. “Some inmates say to us, ‘I’m really discouraged because I’m trying to help myself and better my life and to have access to these services,” Benslimane says. “But I can’t, because I’m in jail, and I can’t call them.’”

It isn’t only the inability to access formal services that can affect the mental health of those inside Ontario’s jails, Benslimane says, noting that a growing number of prisoners can’t reach family members, because the system doesn’t allow calls to cellphones.

That has been the experience of Ron (not his real name). “I’ve had my kids taken away from me from being in this place. I’m allowed to have phone calls with them,” he says. “But I can’t get phone calls out because of the barriers.”

Ron says the phone system in the jail has impeded his ability to communicate with CAS, a community-services centre, an anger-management program, his bank, and his car-insurance company. “I’m scared for when I get out,” he says. “I have sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers: I can’t get ahold of any of them.”

Even if a family has a landline — and nearly one-third of Canadian households did not in 2018, according to Statistics Canada — the cost of collect calls from prison can be burdensome. Justin Piche, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, says that, “for a long-distance collect call from an Ontario jail, it’s 25 bucks for 20 minutes ... That’s being borne directly by prisoners’ families or their friends.”

Documents produced in response to a 2017 freedom-of-information request filed by Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt revealed that the Ontario government has been receiving a commission from Bell Canada for these collect calls. While the exact figure has been redacted, Piche, also the co-founder of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, has calculated that Bell Canada and the provincial government have collectively taken home millions of dollars from friends and family members of the incarcerated.

Advocates say that, as the contract between Bell Canada and the province is set to expire on June 9, 2020, it’s time for a new deal. They want jails to allow free calls both to landlines and to cellphones, to make sure callers can connect with organizations that use switchboard systems — and to get rid of time limits.

Bell’s contract initially expired in June 2018, but it has been extended twice — in order, the ministry told TVO.org via email, “to maintain the service while the procurement process takes place.”

Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, told TVO.org via email that the ministry issued a request for procurement bids this summer and that it is “in the process of final evaluation and selection.” He also confirmed that calls to cellphones will be permitted under the new system and stated that one of the ministry’s objectives will be to “provide access to telephone services at reasonable rates so they can maintain connection with family, lawyers, and with community organizations and agencies.”

Ron, for his part, believes that calls should be free of charge. “There are people incarcerated that don’t have any money at all,” he says. “There are people who have had their whole lives that have been ripped apart, turned outside down, that are unable to afford any cost to calls at all."

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