New phone rates in Manitoba jails create barriers for inmates, advocate says

There's a new phone system in Manitoba jails that seems to acknowledge the value of a phone call, but the price tag is one that many inmates cannot afford.

New phone service comes with higher costs to inmates and their families

John Hutton of the John Howard Society of Manitoba wants the province to consider a per-unit cost to inmate phone calls, rather than a flat rate. (Kim Kaschor/ CBC)

There's a new phone system in Manitoba jails that seems to acknowledge the value of a phone call, but the price tag is one that many inmates cannot afford.

"We're going to have to drastically reduce the amount of time that he spends on the phone," said William, speaking about a family member currently residing in a Manitoba correctional facility.

CBC News is calling the family member William and his incarcerated relative, Jacob, in order to protect their identities. William and Jacob fear backlash from jail officials for speaking out.

The new phone rates come into effect at the end of October. Among the changes comes a flat rate of $3 per phone calls that last up to 15 minutes.

Currently, Jacob makes his calls to friends and family for free.

"For what he spends on the phone, we would end up paying about $450 a month," said William, adding that the phone calls are one of the only ways for Jacob to stay connected to loved ones.

At the end of every day, Jacob's family gathers for their nightly chat. It has gone on for more than a year, as Jacob waits for his day in court.

"We have a cordless phone and put it in the centre and put it on speaker phone. For us, that's kind of a routine we've gotten into," said William.

Advocates call for fair rates

Prisoners' rights advocates worry that a flat rate for calls creates a barrier for inmates and families.

"To put it into perspective, those who are lucky enough to have a job inside a correctional centre as a trustee would be paid $6 a day … or two phone calls. So try to bear in mind that this is a group of consumers that don't have a lot of income," said John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba.

Rather than a flat rate, Hutton wants to see rates charged by the minute and capped in the same way American federal and state inmates' calling rates are capped.

If somebody comes out and feels isolated...they're far more likely to re-offend.- John Hutton, John Howard Society of Manitoba

In August, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a cap of 13 cents a minute on inmate calls.

"The inmate calling rate rules adopted by the FCC don't allow a flat rate and the reasons for that were that it could mean that even a short call could be costly," said Mark Wigfield of the FCC.

The FCC's 13-cent cap comes after a decade of calling for inmate phone service reform, but telecommunication companies are still challenging the order.

"The current status is that the rate cap for the large institutions of 13 cents per minute would take effect around the end of the year, but the court could step in to block that," said Wigfield.

In the meantime, companies such as Synergy Inmate Phones are making a move on the Canadian market. The company, based out of San Antonio, Texas, is already providing service to correctional facilities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

The Manitoba government entered a five-year contract with Synergy to provide service for all provincial correctional institutions starting at the end of the month.

"The tendering process considered the cost to inmates, reliability of the service and the experiences of other jurisdictions," according to a spokesperson for the province.

CBC News contacted Synergy Inmate Phones about the concern over rates, but a company spokesperson said that information should come directly from the province.

Matter of public safety

Under the new calling rates, non-sentenced inmates such as Jacob will receive three free personal phone calls per day, up to 15 minutes each. If Jacob is convicted, he will lose those free calls, further isolating him from friends and family who cannot bear the additional cost.

That loss of connection is a matter of public safety, said Hutton.

"If somebody is able to maintain their connection to their family — to feel connected, to feel like they're a parent to their child — when they come out of custody, they have a huge incentive not to put that at risk and go back into custody," he said.

"If somebody comes out and feels isolated, that they no longer have a connection with their family, they're far more likely to reoffend."