Sanctioned abuse…….

…….political malpractice……..getting worse

Even as inmate finances in federal institutions were neglected over the years, there was one welcome although conditional relief in the first decade of this century……the cost of telephone calls. Even this wasn’t accomplished though without a duplicitous arrangement between Correctional Service of Canada and a major Canadian corporation. And, since this will bear on a morally repugnant government decision in 2013, we’ll pause to “talk on the telephone.”

We’re referencing life in federal prisons in this series and not conditions in provincial jails. Financial support for provincial inmates comes solely from friends and family. Provincial inmate telephone services are provided predominately by Bell and all calls are made collect. Generally, local calls are $1.00 but tariffs increase with distance. Burdensome to some families, although stays in provincial jails are short-term, and there’s no incentive for the relevant ministries to consider alternatives.

What is common in all telephone service provider contracts with provincial jail AND federal prison agencies is a “kickback”, a percentage of what the telephone companies take in from inmate calls. How much of a cut the government gets is a corporate trade secret and not subject to access to information legislation.

But, back to “talk on the telephone.” Federal inmate calls had been collect for decades. Even as competition and improvements in telecommunications drove costs to consumers lower, and the packaging of services became the norm, prisoners continued to pile up telephone charges to their families and friends, and Correctional Service of Canada and Bell Canada in particular profited.

At the beginning of 1998, the Service introduced the ‘Millennium’ telephone system to enhance security. With that came an increase in charges. In the succeeding years, no measures were taken to bring costs in line with those in the community, and no assessment of the system’s benefit as a security mechanism was undertaken. Naturally, this was contentious with both inmates and the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

A dozen years ago or so, Correctional Service of Canada undertook to rectify an obviously untenable position, and put out a tender to provide inmates with calling cards. Under this arrangement, each inmate received a card registered to their name and to which the institution placed up to five pre-approved telephone numbers. On a monthly specified date, and at the inmate’s request, cards could be loaded with funds from an inmate’s account, and telephone tariffs were competitive with what was available in the community. For an inmate who ran out of funds on a card before it could be reloaded, or an inmate with no money, all calls would be collect, and the charges for those collect calls reverted to the older and more expensive scale.

Bell Canada was awarded the contract for this service, and as long as inmates can keep a positive funding position on their cards, it’s worked well. The one drawback that comes to the Correctional Investigator’s attention now is access to telephones.

But, hold it. There was one snafu, one kerfuffle in this neat contracted process that was closeted.

When the bids to provide this telephone service to inmates were unsealed, and keeping in mind that Bell had been a big player all along, Correctional Service of Canada subsequently asked them to ‘repair’ their offer. Following the request, Bell was then awarded the contract.

Telus screamed foul, and took their argument to the federal government department charged with ethics and best practices. Telus lost. Why? It was ruled that judgments could be made only in circumstances where government money, taxpayer money, was involved. In the matter of telephone services for prison inmates, it was inmate money, citizen’s money, in question. The committee had no authority to intervene. Further, and to its discredit, no comment was made on what lead Telus to bring its case forward in the first place.

This should have come back to bite the government’s butt in a 2013 policy decision. It didn’t.

Read on……..

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