Thursday, October 10, 2019

With Bell Canada’s contract with Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General set to expire, a new report recommends free calling for the province’s prisoners


10 October 2019 – Today, the Jail Accountability & Information Line (JAIL) released a report (click here to download) documenting the problems with the Bell Canada administered provincial prison phone system that does not allow calls to cellphones and serves as a source of hardship for prisoners’ families who have to pay the exorbitant costs of collect calls, which often amount to hundreds of dollars per month and sometimes even thousands. With Bell Canada’s contract with the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General set to expire in 2020, the report recommends that the province adopt a new phone system that allows prisoners to make free calls to both landlines and cellphones, in keeping with other jurisdictions who have put in place such measures to foster community connections that enhance the safe re-entry of prisoners following their release from custody.

The JAIL hotline, which takes calls on weekdays from 1:00pm to 4:00pm from people caged at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) seeking support to address human rights issues and information to facilitate their safe re-entry into the community, has been operating since 10 December 2018. In ten months, it has taken 2,677 calls, highlighting the need for short-term reforms to limit the damage of human caging, while working towards greater investments in community-based alternatives to reduce the use of imprisonment. Among the problems in the jail that could be alleviated to some extent by immediate reforms is the degree of isolation OCDC prisoners experience when they're forcibly separated from their families and supports in the community. Souheil Benslimane, Lead Coordinator of the JAIL hotline, notes: “While human caging, so long as it exists, will always keep people inside and others outside the walls, causing significant pain to themselves and those close to them, putting in place a free phone system would go a long way in bridging this divide, providing means of connection that are essential to getting out and staying out of prison”.

JAIL hotline callers often come from low-income backgrounds. Their families cannot afford the added expenses associated with setting up and paying monthly bills for a landline and other telephone services that allow them to receive collect calls. Callers who experience mental health and/or drug use issues, criminalization, and poverty – constituting a significant portion of the Ontario jail population – are further marginalized by the prohibitive, predatory, and outdated jail telephone system. The need for these individuals to connect to their outside circles of support and care in order to access crucial social services is heightened when they're imprisoned. The current telephone system makes this access impossible for many and exposes them to the detrimental consequences of isolation. Far too often, the results of community disconnection are fatal, as was the case when Cleve “Cas” Geddes was cut-off from his family while he lived with schizophrenia in segregation at OCDC where he hung himself and later died in hospital (an incarcerated person's suicide risk is 5 times higher than the rest of the population).

In the United States, cost-free telecommunication for prisoners is gaining momentum. In the cities of New York and San Francisco, Shelby County, and the State of Connecticut, families don't pay to talk to their loved ones behind bars. The Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General must make jail telecommunication cost-free to end the unnecessary isolation incarcerated persons experience in the jails and prisons it operates. Dr. Justin Piché, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, notes the benefits of adopting the JAIL hotline’s report recommendations: “The Ministry is in a position to better foster prisoners’ ties with their communities and families, which are known to improve safe re-entry outcomes. Premier Ford, Solicitor General Jones and their government should end the shameless profits being made on the backs of prisoners’ families through the existing jail phone system contract signed by the previous Liberal government that expires in 2020. Putting in place a new telecommunication system for confined individuals, their families, and other support systems that allows for free calling to landlines and cell phones is a sensible step towards a safer Ontario”.

The report released today is based on the information and recommendations provided by JAIL hotline callers, who are well-positioned to know the problems that exist behind bars that they regularly experience and how to address them.

For Media Interviews Contact:
Souheil Benslimane
Lead Coordinator
Jail Accountability & Information Line
819-592-6469 /