Increased phone costs an additional punishment for prison inmates: advocates

Prisoner advocates say charging inmates exorbitant rates to call loved ones from jail could hinder their chances for rehabilitation and make it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society.

'The further you remove someone from society, the harder it's going to be to bring them back'

A mother who has been advocating for addictions to be treated as a health care issue, rather than a criminal issue, says she was "disappointed" by the lack of focus on addictions in Wednesday's throne speech. (Shutterstock)

Prisoner advocates say charging inmates exorbitant rates to call loved ones from jail could hinder their chances for rehabilitation and make it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society.

"Once a person goes to court and is found guilty and sentenced — that's their punishment. They're not supposed to be further punished when they're inside," said Chris Hay, executive director of the John Howard Society in Edmonton.

"Research shows us the closer you can keep someone to society once they're incarcerated, the easier it will be to reintegrate them after the fact. I lose sleep at night about people coming out of prison because I know they're coming out worse than when they went in."

Manitoba jails recently began charging inmates new phone rates, including a $3 flat rate for calls that last up to 15 minutes. That amounts to a day's pay for a prisoner who has a job on the inside.

Phone calls, allowing inmates to keep an open lifeline on the outside to family and friends, used to be essentially free.

'It was kind of a shock'

But now prisoners who can't pay are out of luck unless they have a family willing to foot the bill.

"It was kind of a shock," said William, a Winnipeg resident who didn't want his last name used.

His brother is inside a provincial correctional facility and would talk to the family up to an hour a day.

"The price basically went from zero and, under what he was calling previously, it would have been about $700 per month," he said.

"We can do half of what he was talking previously, which is still about $350 a month, which is definitely tough to afford."

The phone system is operated by Texas-based Synergy Inmate Phones which also provides service to correctional facilities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia.

A coalition in Saskatchewan is fighting the phone fees in jails there. Synergy wouldn't confirm the fees are in place in other provinces.

"Because of contractual restraints, I am not at liberty to discuss any details with any of our provincial accounts," wrote Synergy Canada president Charles Slaughter in an email.

'Punishment within punishment'

Alberta charges a $1.25 flat fee for 20-minute local calls and $1.75 for collect calls.

Saskatchewan hasn't confirmed what fees it has in place.

"Manitoba is not the first province for this to be implemented. Saskatchewan has had Synergy phones since 2010. There are a couple of other provinces who have adopted it as well and it seems to be the direction that things are going," said Jacquie Nicholson, a prisoner solidarity activist in Winnipeg.

Nicholson is worried prisoners will lose connections to family and friends because of money.

"Now there's children that can no longer speak to their mothers and their fathers, parents who can no longer speak to their children," she said.

"Punishment within punishment makes the general public feel good. They like to think there are these bad guys and we're making them feel really bad, which is a very simplistic way of thinking," she said.

"What kind of people are they going to be when they get out?"

Alberta prisoners denied visits 

Hay said the cost of prison calls is part of a bigger problem. Prisoners still presumed innocent at Alberta remand centres are no longer allowed in-person visits and there's chronic overcrowding as well.

"It's always amazing to me when people are released from prison and then commit another offence. We throw our arms up in the air and say we don't get it," Hay said.

"The further you remove someone from society, the harder it's going to be to bring them back."