New prison phone system hangs up on inmates' lawyers

A new phone system for inmates in Manitoba correctional facilities has become a concern for lawyers who say they are having trouble reaching their clients.

Video link at Milner Ridge crashes, doesn't work for 2 weeks

Lawyers and clients in Manitoba jails have problems with new phone system. (CBC)

A new phone system for inmates in Manitoba correctional facilities has become a concern for lawyers who say they are having trouble reaching their clients.

Calls are being dropped and messages from lawyers are not getting through to inmates after a new phone system went operational at the end of October.

The system charges people in custody for personal calls but not to contact their legal representatives or agencies such as the John Howard Society.

Jody Ostapiw of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba says clients are being cut off from legal counsel.

"Unfortunately lawyers have been experiencing problems with the new phone system, whether it's clients calling and they can't hear the client [or] clients calling and being cut off after three minutes," Ostapiw said.

The new system has also proven a challenge for lawyers wanting to leave messages for their clients. Ostapiw says the voice mail system is not easy to navigate.

"Our lawyers have been emailing the whole association saying, 'Does anyone know how to use this?' or, 'I've tried to call this number and this isn't working,'" Ostapiw said.

The Manitoba government entered a five-year contract with Synergy to provide service for all provincial correctional institutions. The contract was signed with the previous government in February 2016.

There have been concerns raised by prisoner-rights advocates about the cost of the new phone system and its accessibility for people who've been incarcerated. 

The latest problems come as the Progressive Conservative government is reviewing Manitoba Justice operations and is looking for efficiencies while dealing with over-crowded facilities and a clogged trial system.

Problems with the phone system coincide with issues with the video-link service at Milner Ridge Corrections Centre which is supposed to connect lawyers and their clients.

Video link crashes 

The video system allows lawyers to speak directly to clients and show them documents and evidence. The system crashed on Oct.  22 and wasn't repaired until Nov. 8.

"Unfortunately Milner Ridge presents a unique problem because it's farther away. It is not that easy for us to get out to Beausejour to meet with those's definitely been a disruption," Ostapiw said. Milner Ridge is about 30 kilometres northeast of Beausejour, Man.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Justice told CBC News inmates and their legal counsel could meet in person or talk over the phone while the video system was being repaired and in situations where more contact was needed an inmate could be transferred to another facility.

Problems with phone system generate political reaction

The bugs in the new phone system for inmates are unacceptable, said the opposition NDP. 

"The breakdowns in the private phone system at provincial correctional facilities are unacceptable. Under Canadian law, inmates have a right to contact their lawyers. When the phone system at provincial correctional facilities fails, inmates lose their ability to discuss their cases in a timely manner and lawyers can't keep clients up to date on court developments," said a party spokesperson in an email. 

The province said it is aware of the problems with the phone system and is reviewing the issue. 

"The [Justice] Minister has recently received correspondence regarding concerns about the reliability of the new telephone system operated by Synergy and has requested an update on the system's performance since implementation," said a spokesperson for Justice Minister Heather Stefanson via email.