Phone Calls Too Costly for Many Inmates: Critics

By May, Katie | Winnipeg Free Press, April 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

Phone Calls Too Costly for Many Inmates: Critics


May, Katie, Winnipeg Free Press


The high cost of phone calls from inside Manitoba's correctional centres has raised the ire of inmate advocates, who say the system puts a heavy burden on people who can't afford the price to stay in contact with their families.

Six months ago, the province overhauled its phone system within all provincial correctional facilities, signing on to a five-year contract with Synergy Inmate Phones, a Texas-based company whose corporate website claims it handles calls for "hundreds" of jails across the United States and Canada.

Since then, some inmates and their families have complained about "predatory" fees for poor-quality calls. But Manitoba Corrections is defending the system as a "quantum leap forward" that doesn't unfairly disadvantage the province's disproportionately high number of adults in custody, awaiting trial.

Prior to October, inmates paid for long-distance calls but weren't charged for local calls -- at least, not visibly so. Now, sentenced prisoners pay $3 whether they're dialing locally or long-distance, and calls have a 15-minute limit. Inmates on remand awaiting trial are allowed three free calls a day.

"We were very deliberate in terms of our negotiations with Synergy on this point because we didn't want to disadvantage people in Manitoba based on geography -- and that's what was happening before," said Ed Klassen, director of operations for custody at Manitoba Corrections.

About one in four inmates jailed in Winnipeg has rural-Manitoba roots, so it made sense to charge the same fee for local and long-distance calls, he said.

"Of critical importance for us was to try to shift the free calling onto those groups in custody who are most vulnerable, and that's our remand population," he said.

About 85 per cent of the calls placed from provincial jails are free. That's a statistic Klassen said has more to do with the fact most Manitoba inmates are awaiting trial than it does with the high cost of the calls for convicted prisoners.

But John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society in Winnipeg, said he's heard from inmates and their families who say it's too expensive for them to deposit money into inmates' accounts to make calls or accept collect calls. An inmate with a job inside a provincial institution gets only about $6 a day.

"Family connections are huge. People need to be connected to their children, to their families. And then they have supports when they come out," Hutton said. "There are studies that have shown that if somebody is feeling isolated, not connected to family, friends, community, they're much more likely to re-offend, and the easiest way to communicate the quickest is through the phone."

Synergy has faced criticism in other jurisdictions. In Nova Scotia, advocates say inmates and their families have run up bills of several hundred dollars each month.

"Their business model is the same across the country and it's raising a lot of concerns everywhere because it's basically downloading the costs onto the poorest of the poor, who can't afford it," said Scott Newman, spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.

He said there are concerns within the legal community about the phone system and its technology, which has sometimes made leaving messages for inmates difficult, even though calls to lawyers and many community-support programs are free for all inmates. …

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