As It Happens

Company behind Bell Let's Talk profits off vulnerable inmates through phone deal with jails: lawyer

An Ottawa lawyer is calling out Bell Media for reaping the PR benefits of its mental health campaign Bell Let's Talk while profiting off the backs of some of Ontario's most vulnerable people.

Bell Canada contract hurts inmates with mental health issues, says lawyer Michael Spratt

Criminal defence lawyer Michael Spratt says Bell Canada is profiting off inmates who face high levels of mental illness and preventing them from reaching much needed support systems. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

An Ottawa lawyer is calling out Bell Canada for reaping the PR benefits of its mental health campaign Bell Let's Talk while profiting from some of Ontario's most vulnerable people.

That's because the telecommunications giant has an exclusive contract to provide phone services for inmates in provincial jails. Michael Spratt says those calls are restrictively expensive and difficult, preventing inmates, who are often mentally ill, from talking to their counsellors, families or broader support systems. 

Spratt also obtained documents in 2017 that show the provincial government gets a commission from every collect call made from provincial jails.

A spokeswoman with the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General said in an email that the province is working on a procurement process for a "new, modern inmate telephone system" that will give inmates access to "reasonable rates so they can maintain connections with family, lawyers, and with community organizations and agencies."

A Bell spokesperson said the province set the terms of its contract, and rates for inmates are the same as for the general public.

Here is part of Spratt's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

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Run us through this. If you're an inmate in an Ontario jail and you need to make a phone call, what do you have to do?

The first step is not being in segregation or solitary confinement, and that's something that we're seeing more and more in jails.

But when inmates are actually able to access a phone, the first thing they have to do is be able to call someone who can accept a collect call, because that's the only way you can make calls from jail — to a landline and to someone, ultimately inmates' family or the inmate themselves, that can afford a very high collect call rate.

So you have to call someone on a landline?

You have to call someone on a landline. They have to be able to be there to accept the charges. And that person then can't forward you onto a cellphone ... or three-way call you onto a cellphone. So there's no way to even sort of get around the requirements that it has to be to a landline.

[Editor's note: Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General said the government's new phone system will include calls to cellphones and international numbers.]

OK, so besides the inconvenience of all this, what does it actually cost, that phone call?

This is the real rub. These phone prices are very expensive, and they're prices that no one else in actuality pays.

We're talking at least $1 a call for local calls, and up to $30 for a 20-minute long-distance call. And because inmates are often transferred away from their support or away from where they live, we're looking at mostly long-distance calls, and sometimes phone bills that can reach thousands of dollars a month.

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

Who's making the profit from this?

It's Bell Canada who is making the profits, and the Ontario government. We know from the last contract that was released under a Freedom of Information Act in 2017 that it's an exclusive contract with Bell and they provide a certain percentage of their profits back to the Ontario government.

And do we know how much that is?

We don't know. The amount or the percentage was redacted in that contract, and both Bell and the Ontario government have refused to say how much of a profit they're making off of our inmates.

But it's not out of the realm of possibility that we're talking about millions of dollars here. And these are millions of dollars being made off the back of inmates who themselves are disproportionately struggling with mental illness. And, ultimately, this phone scheme cuts them off from supports and from their reintegration back into society.

Let's leave the profit aside for a moment to say, well, with this, they have to have control over [where] those phone calls are going and who they're going to. They don't want people directing criminal activity from inside. So what's wrong with having that kind of control over who they call?

There's a few problems with that. The first is that mostly these calls are being made to treatment centres, to addiction counsellors, to mental health supports, to friends and family, and to community supports, like jobs and places for people to live when they get out of jail.

These are all very productive things for inmates to be doing. And by cutting them off from those supports and from that treatment and programming that they're not getting in jail, we're setting them up for failure.

And in the end, study after study has shown that when we cut people off like this, not only are there worsening of mental health conditions, not only are there real harms, including possible death and suicide, but our communities suffer because there's a higher likelihood that people who aren't treated and are cut off and are treated inhumanely are at a higher risk of re-offending.

There's a particular case of a man, Cleve Geddes. Can you tell us about that?

This is a very tragic case that was a subject of a coroner's inquest. He took his own life in jail. He was in solitary confinement and in segregation and cut off from family and friends for a long time while in custody, and his mental health deteriorated.

And one of the recommendations from that inquest was to change the way we deal with the phone system in jail. Quite frankly, these calls — to family, to legal counsel and to community supports — they should be free.

So that was the recommendation. What has become of that?

There's been no action. No action at all. And this is consistent with what we see in our jail system.

Cleve (Cas) Geddes, 30, died on Feb. 17, 2017, two days after he was found hanging in his segregated cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. A coroner's inquest called for changes to the jail's phone system so inmates can call out to cellphones, not just landlines. (Submitted by Sigrid Geddes)

We're talking about jails here, not prison, right? These are remand centres. How many of those people have not actually been convicted of anything?

We're looking at rates as high as 75 per cent or more in Ontario of people who are in jail but have not been convicted of anything and are waiting for their trial. These are people who don't really receive any programming or counselling and may ultimately be found not guilty at the end of the day.

And we know from the auditor general's report that was released last month that 33 per cent of these inmates suffer from mental health issues, and our institutions are not sufficiently funded, staffed or programmed to deal with those issues.

You wrote an article in a Canadian Lawyer magazine pointing out the irony that Bell Canada is making these profits while at the same time it's running a program called Bell Let's Talk in order to raise awareness of mental health. What do you make of that?

I think that we need to take a hard look at sort of this corporate charity that's sprung up.

They're a billion-dollar company, and through this Bell Let's Talk campaign, they receive incredible social media engagement and support and endorsements for a fraction, a percentage of a per cent, of their profits.

And at the end of the day, some of those profits are coming from the most marginalized and the most victimized and the most vulnerable people with mental health issues, and those are the people who Bell's profiting off of.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.