Prairie Messenger Header

Inmates deserve basic right of communication


By Peter Oliver



If you have spent any time trying to support “Joe Inmate” in a Saskatchewan provincial prison, you know you can’t give him a ring to see how things are going. If Joe wants to talk to you, he has to make the call. What you may not know is that Joe’s family has to pay a Texas-based phone company every time Joe decides to make that call.

The private company Joe will use is aptly named Telmate . Its one of a myriad of companies with names like Securus Technologies, Pay Tel and Value-Added Communications. These companies have been capitalizing on soaring prison populations in the U.S. and, in the last decade or so, have started to turn a profit in Canada. The Telmate system is now operating in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

One of the most frustrating things about the system is determining how much it costs to make a call. The basic cost is about $1.35 for a local 20-minute call and $7for a 22-minute long distance call. But there are hidden costs and unexpected catches. In order to make a call, someone has to put money into the Telmate system. There are a couple of ways of doing this. I can put money into the inmate’s account, or I can link the money to my phone number. Both approaches have additional fees.

In order to put money into an inmate’s account, I will need to know the inmate’s CMIS number. Chances are I won’t have that handy, so lets go with linking the money to my phone number. Here’s how the system website delineates the fees for this option: “This deposit will be subject to an additional $2 plus 15 per cent in local, county, state and federal surcharges and regulatory assessments.” For example, a $20 deposit would be assessed an additional $5, making the total payment $25. Still, I’m concerned about Joe and want to stay in touch, so I put money in the system.

With that done I can send Joe a letter to let him know he can call me (add $1 for a stamp). Joe is overjoyed when he gets my letter and at his first chance he gives me a call. Unfortunately, I’m on the line and my answering machine picks up. There goes $1.35 because local calls are charged a flat rate and the service fee applies even if he just gets my answering machine. With limited access to the phone, Joe likely won’t get another shot at a call until tomorrow but, Joe is determined to make the best of it, so he gives it another try on the following day.

By some good fortune I happen to pick up when Joe calls. On this call we work out a schedule so we don’t blow any more money on missed calls. Things go along fairly smoothly until Joe tries to make the most of a call. His wife can’t afford to put money into the system so he asks if I can give her a ring so he can find out how his daughter is doing in the hospital. Like many homes where income is less of a problem, I have a cellphone and landline, so I say, “sure just hang on.” I give Joe’s wife a call, ask how their daughter is doing and get back on the phone to let Joe know what I have found out.

Here’s where things get interesting. The system is designed to block three-way calls and has picked up the sound of my landline when I called Joe’s wife. When I return to my cell to give Joe the information about his daughter, the line is dead. Joe doesn’t call again — ever. At first I don’t know why. Then I learn that the system has permanently blocked my number because it mistakenly interpreted my call to Joe’s wife as a three-way call. I begin a grievance process about the situation. It takes three months to resolve the issue and, even though I have not done anything wrong, I am sternly warned not to do it again.

Perhaps this situation sounds a bit unlikely, but this is exactly what happened to a colleague. My friend persisted with the situation until it was resolved. Many other people simply give up. They resolve the situation by getting a new phone number and putting more money into the system. I’m not sure what happens to the cash linked to the first phone number, but I know they can’t get it back without a lot of red tape.

This is only one of many, many problems with the system. The system is voice activated and often fails to recognize an inmate’s voice, phones are located in public areas so everyone on a unit can hear what you are talking about (a situation that can become dangerous in prison), access to the phone is restricted by extremely rigid schedules, exorbitant fees make inmates vulnerable to muscling for their phone time — the list goes on.

Sadly the exploitation of inmates’ friends and family is not the most disturbing issue about the Telmate system. The system contributes to the exclusion and isolation of inmates. In most cases, sustaining relationships with family and friends contributes to people getting out of prison and staying out of prison. That is a reality that is well-documented. Systems that disrupt these relationships could lead to increased prison counts. This benefits companies like Telmate, but it definitely does not serve our community well. It means more crime, more money spent on courts, police and prison and, worst of all, more harm.
Stop the insanity!

Oliver works in chaplaincy and development for The Micah Mission in Saskatoon.