Saskatchewan couple warns Manitoba inmates, families about high phone bills under new system

A Saskatchewan couple says a new phone service in Manitoba is about to make a lot of money off of Manitoba inmates and their families. Alissa Sorensen faced nearly $4,000 in phone bills after her husband served five-months in a Regina jail which uses the same system.

Same service that provides phone calls in Saskatchewan jails now in Manitoba

A Saskatchewan couple is warning Manitoba inmates and their families after they ended up with thousands of dollars in phone bills under a new system in correctional facilities. That system will be used in Manitoba. (CBC)

With a budget of $100 per month, Alissa Sorensen planned on keeping in close contact with her husband while he served time in a Saskatchewan jail. 

After two months of speaking once or twice a day, the budget was blown.

"You're going to have to make sacrifices to make those calls. For me it came down to making a choice of, do I pay my phone bill or do I give that money towards my rent? I chose more often than not to stay in touch with my family member," said Sorensen.

By the time her husband's five-month sentence in the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre (RPCC) was up, the couple faced almost $4,000 in phone bills. They say staying in touch was an important part of preparing for reintegration once his sentence was served and they struggled to pay the bills.

"It's the people in the outside world that matter the most and are going to help you ... when you get out, because the system doesn't help you when you get out," said Sorensen's husband, Peter.

CBC News is calling Sorensen's husband Peter in order to protect his identity. The couple fears backlash from justice officials and members of the community as Peter tries to reintegrate into society.

The couple had to sell their car and other household items to pay the bill.

After reading that Manitoba jails would be taking on the same inmate phone system as Saskatchewan, Peter felt the need to speak out.

"Selling vehicles and selling things in your home to pay for stupid phone calls, it's just ridiculous and it just adds to the stress. If people want to know what goes through the minds of an offender, really all that it amounts to is stress, stress, stress and stress. And I've seen it before and I've dealt with it before, when you have stress that mounts to such a high level, the person eventually breaks," said Peter.

New phone service increases security

Synergy Inmate Phones has operated in Saskatchewan's provincial jails since June 2010. The switch to Synergy allowed Saskatchewan Corrections to monitor inmate phone calls and is part of increased security measures after a prison break in 2008.

The same company is now hooked up in Manitoba jails, charging a flat rate of $3 for local and long distance calls, and $4.30 for local and long distance collect calls.

Already advocates are concerned about the high cost to inmates and their families.

In Saskatchewan, Synergy charges $1.50 to connect a long distance collect call plus 30 cents per minute up to 20 minutes. Pre-paid long distance calls through Synergy cost $1.00 to connect plus 30 cents per minute up to 20 minutes.

At first, Sorensen went with the pre-paid long distance option that requires family members to deposit money into an inmate's account through an online system, but found it to be too expensive.

"They had extreme surcharges, and then the telephone company had their surcharges on top of it...after $100 I was able to make two 20-minute calls and that was because of all the surcharges and the hook up charges and everything else," said Sorensen.

In the end Sorensen decided to pay for collect calls through her local phone company, which meant she was only paying the hook up fees required by Synergy. She encourages Manitobans to do the same.

"Do your research ... compare it to your local phone companies and see if it is going to be cheaper to go through your phone provider rather than the company," said Sorensen.