On Bell Let’s Talk Day – January 29, 2020 – prisoners’ rights groups in Toronto and Ottawa held demonstrations titled “Bell Let Us Talk’’ in opposition to Bell’s monopoly on the prison phone system. Since 2013, Bell Canada has been the sole provider for Ontario’s province-wide prison phone system, the Offender Telephone Management System (OTMS). Bell Let’s Talk Day affords Bell Canada social capital and presents the company as a beacon of progressiveness, despite its direct involvement in maintaining poor conditions in Ontario prisons.
For everyday civilian use, the cost of a landline call is minimal. In the OTMS, incarcerated people are only allowed to make outgoing collect calls – where the recipient has to pay over a dollar a minute – with the exception of a short list of approved toll-free numbers. This means that loved ones, care providers, legal counsels, and other contacts of prisoners have to pay astronomical amounts to talk to them – the mother of one incarcerated person amassed a phone bill of $6,072.12 over just three months.
Local families of prisoners at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre have reported being charged $1 to pick up a phone call, according to an October 2019 report from the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP). “When a person is transported to the Ottawa jail from Cornwall, Pembroke or other neighbouring cities, towns, and villages, their loved ones and lawyers are forced to pay $2.50 to accept the call and up to $1.33 for each minute,” the report states. As a result, a twenty-minute phone call can cost as much as $30. As Ivory Tong from the Prisoner Correspondence Project told the Daily, “if you don’t have a strong support system on the outside that can support you financially like that then you don’t really get to talk to your friends and family.”
According to the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project, calls can only be made to landline phones – something fewer than two-thirds of Ontarians currently possess. These phone calls, which are capped at 20 minutes, are the only time (outside of written communication) when prisoners can contact loved ones, arrange re-integration plans, and access essential outside services. However, the phones cannot access switch boards, preventing prisoners from reaching the majority of mental health centres, crisis lines, and 1-800 numbers.
A lack of accessible phone service is directly correlated to loneliness, which has a significant negative impact on the mental health of people in the prison system. According to an August 2008 study on prisons in South Australia, “prisoners who scored higher on a measure of loneliness reported higher levels of depression, hopelessness and indicators of suicidal behaviour.” These factors compound other injustices that are heightened by the prison industrial complex, including racism, transphobia, homophobia, and varied forms of violence.
A Freedom of Information request filed by criminal lawyer Michael Spratt revealed that the Ontario government receives a portion of the revenue that Bell generates from these phone calls. Bell’s profiting off of the families of prisoners – who are disproportionately racialized, queer, and from low-income households – is exploitative and unacceptable. Prisoners’ rights groups are urging the Ontario government to follow in the footsteps of the municipal governments of New York City and San Francisco, who have passed legislation that makes phone calls free for prisoners. The groups are also demanding that prisoners be able to call any Canadian phone number, and are advocating for an increase in the time allowance for phone calls, if not the elimination of time limits altogether.
Mental health is an ongoing issue that disproportionately impacts racialized, queer, and low-income communities, and is especially compounded by systems of mass incarceration. It cannot be fixed through corporate wellness schemes like Bell Let’s Talk – and it cannot be solved within a fundamentally abusive and unethical system like the prison industrial complex. Though addressing this issue will not remove the larger structure in place, combating Bell and the Ontario government’s deeply harmful practices can improve, to a meaningful extent, the lives of incarcerated people.
The current contract between the Ontario government and Bell Canada expires in June 2020, meaning that now is the time to act. Members of the McGill community can condemn the current prison phone agreement by signing a petition created by Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Ryerson University. You can also contact Sylvia Jones, Ontario’s Solicitor General, at 519-941-7751 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are financially able, support the ongoing boycott of Bell Canada services, including phone, internet, and TV, as well as BCE Inc.’s subsidiaries such as Bell Media, The Source, Lucky Mobile, and Virgin Mobile. For updates on the movement, follow #LetUsTalk on Twitter.
Members of the Montreal community can also get involved in initiatives to combat prisoner isolation and loneliness such as the Prisoner Correspondence Project. To read more about the project, see our interview with Ivory Tong on page eight. Individuals can also volunteer with reintegration projects like Aumônerie communautaire de Montréal.