Ontario inmates will soon be able to call cellphones

Ontario says it's working toward a new telephone system for provincial jails that would allow inmates to call cellphones.

Currently, inmates in provincial jails can only make collect calls to landlines

Inmates can only make outgoing collect-calls inside provincial jails. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Ontario is working toward a new telephone system for provincial jails that would allow inmates to call cellphones.

Currently inmates are only able to place collect calls to landlines — an absurd restriction in the year 2020, say critics and inmate advocates.

High rates for calls are another barrier, they say. Lawyer Michael Spratt said it can be about $1 per minute, and families sometimes can't afford those charges when they start adding up.

Inmates need to make calls to maintain employment, housing and counselling connections while incarcerated, Spratt said.

"This all leads to a situation that is unfair, is overly punitive, but more importantly it leads to a situation that makes our streets less safe," he said.

"When we have people who lose their job, lose connections to the family and are unable to arrange counselling, it means that it's harder for them to reintegrate themselves back into society."

Costs add up

Gabby Aquino, a law student with the Toronto Prisoners' Rights Project, said the restrictions make it virtually impossible for some inmates to reach family and other contacts.

"Those costs and calls do add up, especially if folks might be in a mental health crisis, or if they need to get in touch with legal counsel for a time-sensitive issue," she said.

Making calls in jail can be restrictive and expensive. And now, the province is looking to upgrade how it runs its jail phone system. We talked to a former inmate about how phone calls work in jail and what he thinks needs to be fixed. 8:05

Kristy Denette, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, said the government is working on a procurement process for a new, modern inmate phone system that will include calls to cellphones and international numbers.

The existing contract, with Bell, expires in June and the company said it has submitted a new proposal for services.

"Bell provides communications service to correctional facilities in other jurisdictions as well and the terms vary in each case," said spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis.

"Rates for operated assisted calls are the same as Bell's public rates."

That may be, said Spratt, but virtually no one other than inmates pays those posted rates.

Lawyer Michael Spratt holds up his firm's telephone bills, which run between $1,000 and $5,000 every month. Most of the costs come from collect calls made by clients in jail, he told CBC News in Feb. 2017. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

Province collects revenue from calls

He slammed Bell for promoting Bell Let's Talk day, but at the same time making it difficult for inmates suffering from mental health issues to access their support systems.

"I think Bell needs to take a hard look in the corporate mirror about what it's doing and where it's making its profit," he said.

In 2017, Spratt obtained documents under a Freedom of Information request that show Bell pays the ministry a certain amount of "gross revenue generated by all calls made from all telephones" in the offender telephone system. The percentage is redacted.

Part of the new phone system should be to allow inmates to make free calls to an approved list of people, Spratt said.

"If we need to impose a cost for these phone calls, large corporations and government shouldn't be profiting off the back of people who are presumed innocent," he said.

About 70 per cent of inmates in Ontario's adult correctional facilities are on remand, Ontario's auditor general said in her recent annual report, meaning those people haven't been convicted or sentenced.

With files from The Canadian Press