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Prison phone system user fees exorbitant

By Peter Oliver

02/22/2017

SASKATOON — The Just Youth Group from St. Thomas More College took a lead in raising awareness about the phone systems in Saskatchewan prisons. The Feb. 8 event was aptly titled “Disconnected.” It featured a phone monopoly awareness activity and presentations by a five-member panel, followed by appetizers and conversation.

Jason Mercredi, executive director of Aids Saskatoon, led the phone monopoly game with the approximately 40 students and faculty who came to the event. The participants were divided into groups representing incarcerated individuals and community supports, like social workers and family members. Limited resources quickly disappeared as participants navigated the complexities of the phone system, paying the exorbitant user fees charged by Telmate.

The panel began with a first voice speaker. Brad Christianson, a member of Str8Up, spoke candidly about his experience of prison. “It’s a violent place,” remarked Christianson, as he illustrated how the Telmate phone system escalates tensions inside the jail.

Over the past year, Sarah Buhler, associate professor at the College of Law, and law students, have been researching the impacts of the phone system. Her presentation focused on the larger systemic issues connected with the implementation of a for-profit system in correctional facilities. Buhler noted that these systems are among the most profitable corporate engagements in the U.S. and that, with the election of Donald Trump, efforts to cap user fees in U.S. prisons have been abandoned.

Stan Tu’Inukuafe, a volunteer case worker with incarcerated Str8Up members, illustrated the baffling realities associated with the phone system. Tu’Inukuafe was accused of violating the rules and barred from receiving calls. Attempts to resolve the issue went unheard until he engaged a lawyer and, even though his phone records clearly indicated he had not misused the system, he remains on probation.

The fourth presenter was Tenille Campbell who narrated her experiences of the Telmate system. Campbell, an indigenous PhD student, identified herself as a person of privilege. As she related the details of her encounter with corrections and the Telmate system, she explained, “No one in my family had ever been in prison so I didn’t know how it worked.”

She started to try to make sense of the system when her brother got picked up earlier this year. Knowing “he is blind without his glasses,” she started contacting the jail. The problem seemed simple — he just needed his glasses — but finding some way of getting them to him was nearly impossible. “If you don’t know anything about the system, you don’t realize you can’t just call in.” It took five days to get the issue sorted out.

As the presentation wrapped up, educational materials and postcards advocating changes to the system were provided to participants. The materials helped to contextualize the realities of the system. For example, they spell out the costs of the system compared to an inmate’s resources. “Calls are very expensive when compared to an inmate’s daily wage, which generally ranges from $1, $3 or $5 per day depending on their placement and job duties.”

The materials go on to say, “Depending on the inmate’s daily wage, the cost of one telephone call can range between 27 per cent of an inmate’s daily income to 750 per cent of an inmate’s daily income.”

The event was well received and many participants continued the conversation as they enjoyed the hospitality provided by the caterer at St. Thomas More College.

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