Protest tomorrow on #BellLetsTalk day to push the phone company to provide Ontario prisoners and their families with more affordable and accessible phone calls to diminish their mental distress
29 January 2019 – A demonstration is being held tomorrow on #BellLetsTalk day from 12:15pm to 12:45pm at Place Bell (160 Elgin Street – Ottawa / Algonquin Territory) against the predatory and flawed Ontario jail phone system run by Bell Canada. Speakers and others gathered will present two demands to the telecommunications giant: (1) that the company put an end to the very high phone charges paid by provincial prisoners, including those held at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), and their loved ones that deepen poverty, sever family and community bonds, and cause stress and mental anguish; and (2) that they make changes to the system they administer to allow prisoners to call cell phones to connect with their families and friends. These changes are needed given that in 2015 then Corrections Minister Yasir Naqvi acknowledged that “25% of people of people who come into our care and custody have mental health problems” and research shows that imprisonment can lead to the onset or worsening of existing conditions.
Under the terms of its current contract with the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which began in 2013 and expires in 2020, Bell Canada – a multi-billion-dollar company – generates a share of its profits off the backs of prisoners who are separated, sometimes at great distances, from their families. According to CBC News, Bell Canada charges $25 for 20-minute long-distance collect calls from the province’s jails and prisons. Sadia Jama of the Canadian Somali Mothers Association notes, “when a family is experiencing poverty because of the loss of an income-earner to incarceration, the huge phone bills paid to try to stay connected during an already very isolating moment in their lives just adds to the financial pressures they face”.
Currently, individuals imprisoned at OCDC and other Ontario jails can only call landlines, which are increasingly rare. Souheil Benslimane, who is a Coordinator for the JAIL / Jail Accountability and Information Line, notes that “since we launched the hotline, we’ve received calls from dozens of people at the Innes Road jail who haven’t spoken to their families for weeks or sometimes even months”. The situation has caused considerable mental distress for prisoners. One JAIL hotline caller, who was exasperated about not being able to talk to his wife as their household doesn’t have a landline, stated: “We need to be able to call cell phones. This is not a joke anymore”. Farhat Rehman of MOMS / Mothers Offering Mutual Support underscores what is at stake: “A single timely phone call to a family member has the potential to avert a disastrous outcome and can even save the life of a love one behind bars”.
The Bell Canada administered Ontario jail phone system also erects barriers for prisoners to connect to their defense attorneys. Michael Spratt, lawyer and partner for Abergel Goldstein & Partners LLP, underscores the seriousness of the issue, noting: “In Ontario, nearly 70% of provincial prisoners are awaiting their day in court. Imagine if your future was hanging in the balance and you weren’t able to call your lawyer’s cell phone to discuss your defense. Imagine getting transferred to a jail far away from your community and then being charged a fortune when you needed to call your lawyer”.
Given that research has documented that imprisonment – through severing ties between prisoners and their loved ones – undermines the ability of incarcerated people to reintegrate into society following their release from custody, Joel Harden, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa-Centre, is concerned that “Ontario’s jail phone system is undermining community well-being and safety”. He adds, “Bell Canada needs to step up and do its part to keep families together so that Ontario’s future is one where we build safer communities, not bigger jails”.
Contact to arrange media interviews with demonstration speakers:
Justin Piché, PhD
Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa
613-793-1093 / firstname.lastname@example.org