Inmate advocates say the high cost of phone calls at Nova Scotia's provincial jails is isolating those behind bars from their families and hindering their chances of rehabilitation.

"We're incarcerating people and then the phone system is adding this extra punishment," said Ashley Avery, women and youth services coordinator with Coverdale Courtwork Services, a Halifax non-profit that provides support to female inmates.  

"To take someone's liberties away and then further punish them ... I think is predatory and oppressive in and of itself."

Since 2013, Nova Scotia has contracted phone systems in its provincial jails to the Texas-based company Synergy Inmate Phones, which also operates jail phone systems in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. 

Documents obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request show the user-pay system charged more than $580,000 for calls made at Nova Scotia's four adult correctional facilities in 2015. 

'It aggravates the situation'

Phone calls at Nova Scotia jails cost between $1.50-1.85 per 20-minute collect call or $1-1.35 per 20-minute prepaid call, plus 30 cents a minute on long-distance calls. There are also taxes and fees for collect calls.

Taxes and fees are also levied on money deposited into an inmate's telephone account, which can be used for prepaid calls. If a relative uses a credit card to deposit $60 into an inmate's account, they can expect to pay an additional $14 in fees and taxes. 

Avery said the cost of calls makes it harder for inmates to find support such as housing or financial help following release from jail. 

"The women that are in [jail] are our most economically marginalized women, so they already struggle in the community to begin with," she said. 

"Then they are put in the institution and they are cut off from the very few supports they already have ... so it aggravates the situation even further."

'A great financial cost'

In early April, inmates at Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Pictou County started a petition calling on the provincial justice department to end "exploitative" phone costs. 

While some families find ways to cover costs, Avery said that's not an option for most. For the few she's spoken to who can afford to connect, phone costs average $700 a month. She said those families often have to cut out essential items from their budget to keep in touch with their loved one who is incarcerated. 

'$9,000, if not more'

For other families, costs can far exceed $700 a month. In 2014, Tonya Paris' son was held for nine months on remand. He often called two or three times a day — and it wasn't long before the family was racking up huge bills.

So he was in there for nine months, and honest to God, I think we probably paid about $9,000, if not more. - Tonya Paris

"[We] all wanted contact with him because we were all worried, and the only way we could contact him is if we paid money. So he was in there for nine months, and honest to God, I think we probably paid about $9,000, if not more."

Paris's son wasn't in Nova Scotia — he was being held in a facility in Alberta, which also contracts its phone systems to Synergy Inmate Phones. But Paris said her family has encountered similar bills with a brother who's been in and out of Nova Scotia facilities, and for whom the phone was a lifeline. 

Some proceeds go to offender trust fund

Most of the money charged for phone calls is collected by the company that runs the service, Synergy Inmate Phones, but the province takes a commission which goes into an offender trust fund.

In 2015, a little more than $100,000 went into the trust fund, which must be used for inmates' benefit. 

Services paid for from the trust fund can include televisions in common areas as well as educational programs, library books and the offender incentive, which is an allowance provided to inmates for work performed at a facility. 

Working a minimum of three days a week, an inmate can earn up to $10 bi-weekly through the incentive. One 20-minute long-distance call costs $7.  

Charging for expenses

Canadian senator Kim Pate is the former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. She says that by funding inmates' recreational and educational services partially through money generated by the phone system, the province places the burden of paying for important programming on the inmates themselves.

"We're supposed to be long since past debtors prisons in this country, and [this system] basically amounts to charging the prisoners for the expenses of them being in the jail, and having basic needs met or basic entitlements met in a way that they have to pay for."

Rehabilitation important

Synergy Canada president Charles Slaughter said in an email to CBC News that because of contractual restraints, he could not discuss details of provincial accounts.

We're supposed to be long since past debtors prisons in this country. - Senator Kim Pate

Nova Scotia's Department of Justice said in a statement it's important that inmates maintain connection with loved ones, which is facilitated through phone and in-person visits. The department also said the increased security features of jail phone systems — such as blocking numbers, or recording and monitoring calls — make them unlike residential phone service. 

The province said rehabilitation for inmates is a priority, and that programming is offered to help with that process.

Jeopardizing reintegration 

But Pate believes the high cost of phones in jail is jeopardizing inmates' connection to their families, which research shows is the most important factor in reducing the chances of inmates re-offending. 

"Provincial and territorial and federal corrections have long maintained that one of the best indicators of whether someone will do well and integrate into the community is the extent to which they are able to maintain ties with their families," Pate said.

She said that if inmates can't speak with relatives, then the corrections system is interfering with one of their own objectives — to help move people through the system and into the community.

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With files from CBC's Information Morning