Expert worries stress is mounting as isolation continues in Saskatchewan jails

Visitation was suspended at Saskatchewan prisons at the beginning of COVID-19, but inmates were given extra free phone calls. Those free phone calls are limited to one a day.

'Living without family visits is taking a real toll,' says John Howard Society

Inmates spend increased hours in their cells in Saskatchewan jails due to the pandemic. An expert worries the isolation will be a detriment to the inmates mental health upon release. (CBC)

Not a single Saskatchewan inmate has been found to have contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated since the province declared a state of emergency. They also haven't had any visits from any family or friends in nearly five months.

Saskatchewan jails suspended visitation at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in hopes of containing the spread of the virus. To counterbalance that, inmates at Saskatchewan penitentiaries and remand centres were given two free 20-minute phone calls per day.

That privilege has since been clawed back. Telmate, the American phone company that provides the telephone system in Saskatchewan jails and prisons, stopped offering the two free calls around the six-week mark of the lockdown. The Ministry of Corrections and Policing then decided to cover the cost of one free 20-minute phone call a day.

Pierre Hawkins, a lawyer with the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, applauded the ministry for covering the cost of the daily free call.

"We know that access to family, contact with family is a key part of rehabilitation," he said.

Inmates in Saskatchewan's provincial jails receive one free 20-minute phone call a day in-lieu of visitation during the pandemic. (Matthew Garand/CBC)

Hawkins said creating and maintaining family connections is one of the strongest indicators of if someone will end up back in custody. He said those connections are important to both the inmates and their families.

"When the pandemic hit there was a lot of stress, and the communication from the ministry to the inmates wasn't great. Access to PPE was limited, but as time wore on the ministry reduced the prison population by 25 per cent and enacted some measures that made the stress for inmates fall a little bit," he said.

"But they're still living without family visits and it's taking a real toll."

Depending on the inmate's charges, a typical day in a provincial jail during COVID-19 can include three one hour free-time sessions outside of their cell, meals eaten in their cells and — if the phone is available — phone calls. Inmates are allowed to make as many calls as they can afford and are also provided free phone calls with their legal team.

Noel Busse, spokesman for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice, said that, in addition to the one free call per day, the ministry is also providing additional free calls to chaplains and elders.

Busse said the rules are a little different for young offenders.

"During the pandemic, every youth in custody has been given the opportunity for at least one daily call to immediate family or those approved as a positive support," he said.

Youth are also able to call elders and chaplains in addition to the free daily calls.

Hawkins said telephones are a lifeline.

"Phone calls are very important especially when visits are suspended," he said. "Inmates have family across the province and inmates get moved around from correctional facility to correctional facility which makes it difficult for families to stay connected, especially lower income families, which form the majority of families of inmates."

Hawkins said the Telmate system is also complicated to navigate. The technology is flawed and expensive for inmates to access, he said. 

Here is a breakdown of the fees:

Telmate costs phone system in Saskatchewan jails. (Government of Saskatchewan website)

Hawkins said one of the biggest flaws of the phone system is its use of voice recognition software.

"If it hears people talking in the background the call will be dropped and you are not credited the lost time and the inmate loses that call," he said.

"If calls are being dropped, which we know has been traditionally a problem with the Telmate system, it should be fixed."

Saskatchewan has been using the Telmate system since 2010.

According to a Saskatchewan Law Review article written by Kennedy Morrow, Telmate makes over $1,000,000 annually in the province from the phone service. The province gets 10 per cent of the money Telmate makes, which is to be reinvested into the jail for recreation and enrichment programming. 

Hawkins said a lot of programming for inmates has been suspended during the pandemic. He said these programs are another another key element in reducing inmates' chances of reoffending.

"Being stuck in your cell versus being able to move about the community is very taxing, the more movement and more programming the better, these things all contribute to rehabilitation," he said.

This combination of isolation, financial restrictions for additional phone calls, reduced programming and no family visitation is a recipe Hawkins believes sets the inmates up to re-offend upon release.

"There are changes that can be made, and that probably should be made, that would help inmates and help communities to be safer and reduce rates of recidivism," Hawkins said.

Busse said that while correctional centres have resumed visitation from lawyers and other professionals, there is no timeline for resuming personal visits.

"Any changes to the current precautions around COVID-19 will only be made after close consultation with public health authorities," Busse said. 

Hawkins said he isn't looking for the province reopen visitation, but would like it to bring programming back, to re-examine the telephone system and to remember that people need to support each other.

"That doesn't change just because that person has gone to jail," he said.


Fiona Odlum

CBC Staffer

Fiona is a contributor at CBC Saskatchewan. She is from Winnipeg, Manitoba and that is where she started her broadcasting career over 15 years ago. Fiona has done everything from traffic reporting in a helicopter, to breaking news, anchoring and hosting talk radio across the country and telling weather stories.