Pricier jail phone calls in Manitoba dial up outrage


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The province is taking heat for contracting a Texas-based private prison phone service that's hiking rates for Manitoba inmates.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/10/2016 (2347 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The province is taking heat for contracting a Texas-based private prison phone service that’s hiking rates for Manitoba inmates.

The charges levied by Synergy Inmate Phone Solutions, a San Antonio-based company with extensive contracts in U.S. jails and detention centres, include fees for phone calls and levies families must pay to buy prepaid phone cards for relatives behind bars or in custody awaiting trial.

The fees began rolling out in Manitoba provincial jails this month, including Milner Ridge Correctional Centre, the Headlingley Correctional Centre and the Women’s Correctional Centre. It also covers the Winnipeg Remand Centre.

“I’ve been visiting my fiance in the remand centre for over a year now and the last time I made a deposit on his phone, the prepaid card for offenders, it cost me $13, on top of the $60 I put on it. It’s insane. They’re ripping people off,” said a woman the Free Press is calling Trinity to protect her identity and her partner’s, a man due to be sentenced next month on an assault conviction.

Trinity listed other new fees this month, including a handling fee on canteen accounts that inmates use to purchase water, candy, chips and magazines at the remand centre.

“All of this is new, trust me. I’ve been going there for over a year and I’ve never seen anything so drastic. There are a lot of people upset about it,” Trinity said.

The John Howard Society and the Opposition NDP have lobbied the province to release a copy of the contract with Synergy, with no success so far.

“The difficulty is the cost to inmates,” said John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, which advocates on behalf of inmates.

“Previously, local calls were free but the cost of them was subsidized with a mark-up at the canteen. But now they’ve put the cost directly on the inmates and the province gets a cut, a commission on the contract, although I’m told it’s a small one.

“This isn’t about being fair, it’s about doing the right thing and if inmates can connect with their families, they’re fairly likely not to reoffend.”

Synergy also provides phone services at provincial correctional facilities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Saskatchewan. A coalition in Saskatchewan is fighting the phone fees in jails there.

Former NDP attorney general Andrew Swan, now an Opposition MLA, said he knows of a Manitoba couple who paid more than $4,000 in the space of five months for the wife to keep in phone contact with her husband when he was incarcerated in a Saskatchewan jail.

“I can talk until I’m blue in the face and say this is cruel and it’s unfair but I don’t think many Manitobans, unfortunately, will be very concerned,” Swan said.

“But as soon as you say this is impairing public safety, that you’re making it tougher for people to keep up positive relationships, when they come out of jail, that everybody who’s serving time is going to be back in the community, well, we all want them to have as easy a landing as possible.”

Synergy, which has a Canadian subdivision based in Edmonton, referred calls to the province.

A provincial spokeswoman told the Free Press when the first complaints surfaced that “I’d just note that the previous phone system was provided by MTS, which is also a privately owned company — so I don’t know if there’s a correlation to be made. From what I understand, entire prisons can be run by corporate entities under the U.S. model, which is obviously not the case here.”


Updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2016 4:57 PM CDT: fixed name of company

Updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2016 5:00 PM CDT: minor editing

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