Broken telephone: How Ontario’s prison-phone system leaves inmates disconnected

ANALYSIS: Here’s how the phone system works, who profits — and what advocates say needs to change
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Feb 11, 2021
Souheil Benslimane is a coordinator for the Jail Accountability & Information Line. (Courtesy of Souheil Benslimane.)

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“Can I ask you a favour?” 

It was last April, and I was on the phone with someone incarcerated in one of Ontario’s 25 provincially operated jails and correctional facilities, reporting a story. “Well, that really depends on what it is,” I replied cautiously. He asked whether I would Google the phone number for H&R Block so that he could deal with a banking issue. I looked it up and dictated it. 

For inmates in Ontario’s correctional institutions, struggling to connect with family, lawyers, and service providers is a common challenge. For the most part, inmates can make only collect calls and can’t call cellphones. Their calls are limited to 20 minutes. And the charges, which are generally picked up by inmates’ families, rack up easily, even for local calling — and that’s all assuming inmates aren’t locked down without access to phones.  

Until last year, the Ministry of the Solicitor General contracted with Bell Canada to provide inmate-phone services. Bell had come under fire for holding the contract, which some found incongruous with the telecommunications giant’s messaging about connectivity and mental-health initiatives, such as its annual Bell Let’s Talk Day.

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a row of bunkbeds with a phone on the wall
A telephone is visible in the background of a minimum-security unit of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. (Courtesy of the Independent Review of Ontario Corrections/Queen’s Printer for Ontario/mcscs.jus.gov.on.ca)

Although Bell filed a bid to keep the contract, it was supplanted by Synergy Inmate Phone Solutions Inc. A ministry spokesperson tells TVO.org that a “new, modernized inmate telephone system” — one that can call cellphones — “is expected to be phased in during the second half of 2021.” Once in place, it’ll be a step into the 21st century, though advocates believe that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It is not clear exactly how Synergy’s rates will stack up against Bell’s, which were $1 per 20-minute local call and almost $30 for a long-distance call of the same length, according to a 2019 report. (While the ministry did not provide TVO.org with Synergy’s specific rates when asked, a spokesperson did say that the new system “will permit inmates to call cellphones and international numbers at lower rates.”

Founded in 1995 and based in San Antonio, Synergy operates in Canada and the United States under a handful of names, including Synergy Telecom Service Company, Inc. According to bid materials it submitted to a 2011 request for proposal issued by Sarpy County, Nebraska, its goal is “to provide you with the maximum revenue possible combined with the best in service and a system that is up-to-date with the latest investigative tools.”

Neither Synergy nor the ministry offered any details as to their financial arrangements. But there are some clues: in its Sarpy County bid, Synergy offered the county a 57 per cent commission of its gross revenue, along with a guaranteed minimum commission each month. In Nova Scotia, the CBC reports, Synergy’s inmate-phone system charged users more than $580,000 in 2015, about $100,000 of which went back to the province. (Synergy did not respond to TVO.org’s requests for comment.) In a statement received after publication, the ministry states that it “expects to recover costs consistent with Eurig principles of fair application of user fees and would not realize a profit from inmate phone services.”

For Ontario inmates and their families, staying in touch comes at a high cost. Souheil Benslimane, a coordinator for a hotline created for people incarcerated at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, says that, when he was incarcerated, his charges regularly exceeded $600 per month. It’s common, he says, for families to spend hundreds of dollars a month, plus the cost of a landline. Each call is a new charge, so dropped and disconnected calls also add up. 

Then there’s the 20-minute cap: “You call, for example, Revenue Canada — because I need to do something in my tax file — but when you call and it says, ‘Today, our lines are busy; our wait time is 18 minutes,’” Benslimane says. “So they’re going to have to wait on the line and then only have two minutes to address their issue.” And the consequences of losing touch with the outside world can be dire: losing housing because the rent wasn’t paid, for example, or not being able to coordinate a bail plan.

To learn how Ontario’s inmate-phone system stacks up, TVO.org reached out to each provincial and territorial corrections service in Canada. Of the 10 services that responded, eight contract with Synergy. (Alberta did not respond, but, as of 2016, it was also contracted with the company.) With the exception of Ontario, each province’s system allows calls to cellphones. In the federally operated corrections system, Bell provides the phone services. 

side-by-side photos of prison interiors
Interior views of the Toronto South Detention Centre. (Courtesy of the Independent Review of Ontario Corrections/Queen’s Printer for Ontario/mcscs.jus.gov.on.ca)

Does it matter that Synergy holds most of these contracts? Possibly. In any industry, the presence of one company with a very high market share can indicate a lack of competition, which can mean less competitive pricing. (In 2018, I wrote for The Atlantic about the impact of a lack of competition in the correctional-health-care industry in the U.S. The upshot: it’s not good.) But these contracts bring up another issue: while Canadians would likely object to the wholesale privatization of prisons, correctional services — whether phones, commissary, food, linens, or even psychiatric care — are routinely outsourced to private vendors. 

“Synergy, I'm assuming, isn’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, and nor was Bell,” says Justin Piché, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and co-founding member of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project. “I think it would have been better for the province to try to figure out a solution that would allow for free calling, but instead what we’ve got is just another monopoly that limits prisoners’ ability to communicate.”

Ontario has repeatedly been urged to allow calls to cellphones, including after the 2017 suicide of Cleve Gordon at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. In a 2017 report, Howard Sapers, Ontario’s then independent adviser on corrections reform, reiterated that call and stressed that inmates should have access to basic email and intranet. (In many prison systems in U.S. states, as well as in the United Kingdom, inmates can use a form of email — generally for a fee.)

With limited movement on those recommendations, some advocacy groups have taken action. In 2018, CPEP launched its Jail Accountability & Information Line, which is accessible to anyone incarcerated at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and to their loved ones. Benslimane, one of the line’s coordinators, says that many incarcerated callers ask them to relay information to family members. Earlier this month, the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project launched a hotline for inmates of three facilities in the GTA. 

Early in the pandemic, the ministry started giving $20 calling cards to inmates each month to help alleviate the communication difficulties posed by cancelled visits during the pandemic. Inmates have been able to call cellphones using those cards, Benslimane says, though the cards can’t be topped up. After publication, a ministry spokesperson confirmed that the $20 cards can be used to call cellphones, that the credit is “approximately equivalent to 50 local calls or up to 47 minutes of long-distance calls per month,” and that the initiative will continue until the new phone system is phased in.

“We know prisoners aren't a cash cow, but ... they even want to extract the very, very small dimes — they're nickel-and-diming, basically,” Benslimane says.  “We're asking for cost-free telecommunications for prisoners and lifting the 20-minute call.”

The request is not without precedent. In the U.S., a consortium of groups called Connect Families Now has been pushing for jails and prisons to allow inmates to make free calls. In 2019, New York City did just that in its city jails. Last year, San Francisco did as well.

Ontario says that it recognizes the value of keeping inmates connected with their families — and the spread of COVID-19 within some ministry facilities only underlines the need for connectivity.  But the promise of a new system in a year or so is likely not comforting for those inside now, nor for their families.

This article has been updated with comment from the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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