Disconnected: Ontario prisoners lack basic phone access
All *names in the following text have been changed for privacy and protective purposes.
“I’m scared for when I get out,” says Ron*(whose name has been changed to protect his identity) while incarcerated at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, one of Ontario’s nine provincial detention centres.
He says the phone system in the jail created problems communicating with Children’s Aid Society (CAS), a community services centre, an anger management program, his bank and his car insurance company.
Ron isn’t alone in these realties. The telephone system in Ontario jails makes things worse for many of its 7,500 inmates, some of whom face uncertain futures on release.
Expensive, time-limited and out of date – calls must be collect, can only be made to landlines, cannot involve switchboards and have a 20-minute limit. This creates a cluster of access problems to community supports and amplifies the health and social inequities faced by incarcerated individuals. Advocates say that this has significant consequences for reintegration and rehabilitation once people are released.
Incarcerated individuals are often cut off from family members, unable to call addictions support centres, and disconnected from their banks, landlords and employers. They may be unable to pay a bill, cancel a service they won’t be using, incurring debt for services they never used.
And families of the incarcerated bear a costly financial burden. All calls received from those in jail are collect calls. University of Ottawa criminology professor Justin Piche says it may cost 25 dollars for a 20-minute call from a jail. If an inmate’s family can’t pay – and many can’t – they may not have contact with their family at all, especially if they have been transferred somewhere further from home.
The phone system also means that people experience difficulty in release planning.
For Amber Kellen, director of community initiatives, policy and research at the John Howard Society, this is a missed opportunity. She says, “If people… can connect to options, including a roof over their heads, and income that allows them to eat and clothe themselves, they will generally have an increased quality of life, which is a factor in the prevention of recidivism.”
Currently, the phone system used in all Ontario jails is overseen by the Ministry of the Solicitor General. It has been operated since 2013 by Bell Canada under a contract set to expire in 2020. While some families have paid thousands of dollars to connect with incarcerated people, the contract has seen the Ontario government receive a significant commission from Bell Canada. Piche has calculated that Bell Canada and the Ministry have, together, received millions of dollars in commission. Advocates are calling for sweeping changes in any new deal.
Advocacy groups like the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP) are urging the Ford government to replace the telephone management system to allow incarcerated people the basic right to make free calls to any phone number, including cell phones, without a time limit.
Brent Ross, a Spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, has confirmed that the new system will allow calls to cellphones under the pending contract.
CPEP, comprised of academics and prison reform advocates, launched a Jail Accountability and Information Line (JAIL) in December 2018, to allow Ottawa inmates to get assistance in connecting to addictions, mental health, and housing services. In its first 10 months, JAIL received 2,677 calls from prisons across the province.
Souheil Benslimane, JAIL’s lead coordinator, says that inmates report having difficulties in connecting with services, like addictions treatment facilities, to plan for their release because they are unable to get in touch with the organizations directly from jail.
The stress and uncertainty of incarceration is a common theme for agencies that provide supports to inmates.
Benslimane says that he hears from people who have tried making multiple calls to service providers, but either they don’t accept collect calls, or don’t have landlines.
“Some inmates say to us, I’m really discouraged because I’m trying to help myself, and better my life and to have access to these services, but I can’t because I’m in jail and I can’t call them.”
And there are many potential calls to be made to plan for life after jail. From trying to find housing, getting finances in order, or receiving health care or addictions support.
Access to housing is one of the most common challenges for people who are released from prison. A 2010 study by the John Howard Society of Toronto found that approximately 45 per cent of adult males released from Toronto jails were either homeless, or at heightened risk of being homeless upon release. Homelessness can lead to a downward health spiral. Studies show that people experiencing homelessness have higher prevalence of mental illness, nutritional deficiencies and infectious diseases.
The restrictions on making phone calls exacerbates barriers to finding and maintaining housing, says Kellen.
Under the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act, non-payment of rent can be grounds for an eviction. But because of the restrictions on phone calls, an incarcerated person may not be able to contact their landlord if they are incarcerated for a long period of time.
They also may be blocked from calling the Landlord and Tenant Board, because it is not a pre-approved toll free number, according to Kellen.
Access to community housing requires applicants on the wait list to call and update their information, says Lindsay Jennings, a program coordinator with PASAN, a prisoners’ health and advocacy organization – an impossible task from inside an Ontario jail.
Incarcerated individuals have higher prevalence rates of mental health problems and addictions. It is estimated that 41 per cent of the people incarcerated in Ontario will present with at least one severe symptom of a mental health issue. Incarcerated persons have a higher likelihood of an early death due to preventable issues, including drug overdoses and suicide.
PASAN hears from incarcerated individuals experiencing difficulty accessing naloxone or methadone, and report being dry celled, which is akin to a forced withdrawal, says Jennings.
People want to arrange for post-release treatment, but struggle to connect with the appropriate programs. Those incarcerated describe trying to arrange post-release planning, but struggling with the 20-minute call barrier, where the issue has a higher degree of complexity.
“We don’t get everything said or done. Sometimes when we’re calling an organization, we’re put on hold and it’s hard to reach them again,” says Krista,* another Ottawa inmate.
And Nat,* a third inmate, said she has tried to complete assessments, like a Global Appraisal of Individual Needs (GAIN), which is required in order to be admitted to certain publicly-funded substance abuse treatment programs, but was unable to do so over the phone.
Tara Kiran is a family physician and an adjunct scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. She is the co-author of a study published in October 2019, which found that approximately 60 per cent of people who had been incarcerated accessed primary care, both prior to and after incarceration, compared to 84 per cent of the general population.
Kiran says,“a connection with a family doctor can be an entry-way to connect with other health care services that they need, whether mental health counselling, services related to addictions, or other specialist care they need for chronic conditions.”
The 2019 study also found that that about half of the people who were part of the study were incarcerated again within two years. Kiran says that further research is crucial to understanding the linkages between access to primary care and recidivism.
“How many of those re-admissions to prisons could have been prevented by good quality primary care?”
Incarceration can exacerbate these issues because it is difficult for people to address income supports and manage finances while in jail. Not having access to communication through adequate phone access or the internet is a clear contributor. People who are currently incarcerated report difficulties calling their banks, to cancel a debit card, or deal with bills.
This can affect their ability to get credit when they’re released, and to find housing and stable employment, all important factors in the process of rehabilitation.
“If the [Ministry of the Solicitor General] really cares about rehabilitation, they should really think about making telecommunications free….communication should be a right, not a privilege,” says Benslimane.
Clara Pasieka holds a master’s degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration and is an alumna of the Ontario Legislature Internship Programme and Tebasum Durrani is a lawyer in Toronto, who has worked in community legal clinics across the city.